A paintball playing field, a lawn-care business, a pet-grooming service, pre-mixed jars of ingredients for making pastries, a smoothie store in a school cafeteria, and an online jewelry collection: All of these businesses were founded by teenage entrepreneurs who showed up at an April dinner in New York honoring the 25th anniversary of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), a group dedicated to getting low-income kids interested in business. The thought of becoming a real entrepreneur can be thrilling for children accustomed to play money. But the reality is tough. Kids have to learn real responsibility and make sure they have insurance and pay taxes. NFTE (pronounced “nifty”) is there to help, from providing small start-up loans, to getting vendor licenses, to hosting 80-hour “mini-M.B.A.” classes in high schools that teach students about supply and demand, cost/benefit analysis, record-keeping, the present and future value of money, advertising and marketing, and working with suppliers. The value of its programs have been touted by entrepreneurs ranging from cosmetics creator Bobbi Brown to Internet pioneer Steve Case to rap artist Sean Combs.
During the past quarter century, NFTE has trained more than 500,000 young people across America and branched out by founding programs in 13 countries. Its leaders believe that getting people to start their own businesses is a key route to reducing poverty and teaching self-reliance. Its programs have drawn praise from across the political spectrum. “Teaching, exporting, and expanding entrepreneurship is the single most important thing we can do to improve the lives of the poor,” said the late Jack Kemp in praising NFTE.
“There’s something to the idea that some ethnic groups are more entrepreneurial than others,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Lester Thurow told the Wall Street Journal. “And it doesn’t have anything to do with race. The question is: Can you teach entrepreneurialism? Every leading M.B.A. program tries to do it, and with mixed results. So why not NFTE?”
ONLY ABOUT ONE in eight NFTE graduates go on to start lasting businesses, but even those who don’t learn important skills. “Schools usually don’t teach a lot of practical things people need such as balancing a checkbook or financial literacy,” says California high school teacher Dennis Miller. “At a minimum, NFTE helps impart those lessons in a fun way by involving the kids in their own businesses.” As for those kids whose businesses succeed, NFTE can be a life-changing experience. When she was 11 years old, Jasmine Lawrence lost 90 percent of her hair after using a hair relaxer with harsh chemicals. She vowed never to use chemical products again. Instead, using techniques she learned from NFTE, she started an all-natural line of hair care products that currently brings in over $100,000 a year. Jasmine has turned over operation of her company to her mother so she can finish her studies at Georgia Tech. Jimmy “Mac” McNeal took NFTE classes as a high school student back in 1989. Today he runs BDG Industries, a talent management company that handles the careers of music and sports stars.
The most touching NFTE stories often come from foreign programs. Oil-soaked Saudi Arabia isn’t known for having much of a private sector—or female entrepreneurs. But 16-year-old Muneera Al-Maneea found a niche by designing a scale to measure the exact amount of dust in the air. “Measuring dust is a necessity in Saudi Arabia,” she says. “Dust is a health issue, especially for children.”
Niall Foody is a 16-year-old Irish lad diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. After becoming frustrated at not being able to find the keyhole for his family’s front door in the dark, he developed a glow-in-the-dark key-lock surround strip. “I am now planning on developing other lines, including luminous stickers for light switches or door bells, and luminous numbers on keypads,” he told me at the NFTE dinner.
NFTE began with, of all things, a mugging. Steve Mariotti, a former Ford Motor Company financial analyst, was teaching special education classes in the Bronx in 1982 when he was mugged for $10 by five teenagers. This experience changed the way he approached his classroom duties. Mariotti noticed that even the most alienated students became interested in learning when he talked about the nuts and bolts of starting a business. He got a $20,000 grant from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Newark, supplemented that with help from financier Ray Chambers, and began NFTE in 1987. “I am continually amazed by the dedication, passion, and creativity of these budding entrepreneurs,” he says. “With youth unemployment skyrocketing, it’s a privilege to not only help youth recognize business opportunities but to ultimately create economically self-sufficient lives.” His advice for budding entrepreneurs? “What happens to you is important: Write down what you do, write down all the obstacles, and one by one work against the obstacles to make your dreams come true.”
Ericka Dunlap believes NFTE can help fulfill dreams. While not a NFTE graduate herself, she became aware of the program during her 2004–2005 reign as Miss America. She told me one of her most fulfilling activities is working to inspire NFTE graduates. “Self-confidence and the right image are a key to success, and I love teaching people just how far those qualities can take them,” she told me. They may even take Dunlap into elected office. She’s currently vying for a seat on the Orange County Commission, the governing body for Orlando, Florida. She’s running as a Democrat, but is quick to remind me that she’s “a pro-business Democrat because of NFTE.”
In this way, NFTE can be a bridge across the country’s ideological divide. It reminds us that having a generation of self-sufficient young people is in the interests of conservatives, liberals, and everyone in between.