Youth Entrepreneurship in America’s Schools

Posted: May 19, 2008 in Youth Education in Entrepreneurship
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Julie Silard Kantor, Executive Director, NFTE- Greater Washington

NFTE National Vice President, Office of Public Policy (effective July 1, 2008)

One day, I sat in a crowd of 1000 at the annual Inc. 500 Conference for the fastest growing companies in America. It was May, 1991 and little did I know then, that my life would be changed forever. The keynote speaker—a man named Steve Mariotti was an entrepreneur turned school teacher. After a violent encounter with a group of young people in NYC, he realized that many of America’s youth feel alienated and have no pathway to prosperity. He decided to take action and became a drop-out specialist working with low-income youth in schools like the Jane Adams Vocational HS in the South Bronx. A high percentage of the young people in the schools he worked in were dropping out at alarming rates.


A young man approached me at the conference. He was no older than 16. He handed me his business card, which read: Terrell Johnson, President, TJ’s Accessories, Newark, New Jersey. I asked Terrell if I could see his scarves, and how much they cost.

“They’re $10 each, but I’ll sell you two for $16 — conference special,” he said with a grin that made me think I might buy four.

We started talking and it turned out that Terrell was all of fifteen. I picked out two scarves and handed him a 20-dollar bill. “Hey, would you like to see my business plan?” he asked, as he handed me my change and receipt. I looked over his plan and noticed he had bought the scarves in New York for $36 a dozen ($3 each!). Now that I knew his “cost of goods sold,” which should be classified information for an entrepreneur, I thought less of my big price break — conference special, huh?

But now that I was in his confidence, Terrell told me he typically made $7 on each scarf, and he walked me through sections of his business plan, including his “economics of one unit” page. On his monthly income statement, Terrell showed me that he grossed about $700 each month, but explained he could not keep much of that money as it went towards his monthly costs of doing business and also helping his family out financially.

“I haven’t taken out my USAIIR yet!” he said.

“Your USAir?” I asked, curious what he meant.

“Yes, like the airline,” he replied. “It stands for my operating costs. You see,” he paused to compose himself as if he were standing on a podium at a spelling bee, “U stands for Utilities, S stands for Salaries, A is for Advertising, I stands for Interest and Insurance, and R is my Rent.”

I had to smile. Here I was, working for the premiere small business magazine in the country, and this 15-year-old knew more about actual business than I did!

Inspired, I joined forces with Steve and his partner (and NFTE’s Executive VP) Mike Caslin shortly after as a volunteer and then went full time February 1992 to build NFTE in Boston and parts of New England.

In 1995, I had the honor to return home to my hometown, Washington, DC, to build NFTE in our nation’s capital. Now, twelve years into running NFTE programs in the Washington, DC region we are even more convinced then entrepreneurship education must be a foundation course in every American school. This program is most especially vital for 11-18 year-olds who live in low-income communities and the one-third of all Washington area youth who live in poverty.

We at NFTE believe that teaching entrepreneurship to our youth is a fundamental life skill. NFTE is proven to get kids more engaged in school and their economic futures. The entrepreneurial skills learned in NFTE classes reinforce basic academic skills, as well as develops critical thinking, teamwork, communication, and decision-making. We focus is serving youth from low-income communities by targeting schools where 40% of students qualify for the federally-funded reduced or free lunch program.


Mary Blackford’s High School, Woodson High School in Northeast Washington DC is listed as one of the 2000 ‘drop-out’ factory schools in the country. Mary, a natural leader has benefited from many programs like NFTE (and also Hoop Dreams), started a gift basket company with $50. She presented a 22 page PowerPoint Business Plan at Allied Capital Corporation in 2006.

Impressed with her entrepreneurial nature, Mary received a lot of praise, but took 4th place. That didn’t deter her. Her revenues grew as did her self esteem. We put her in touch with our friend Joe Mahoney at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts and she was not only accepted to our nation’s #1 school for entrepreneurship, but she received a full four year scholarship and also a women’s leadership scholarship, in total over $200,000!

Now Mary launched her business with $50 donated as part of a larger gift from David Roodberg, CEO of Horning Brothers (David, we hope you are thrilled with the great ROI in so many young people’s lives).

In an enlightening talk a few weeks ago with Mary we discussed the impact of that first $50 from David Roodberg. She told me her friend Lisa* spent $50 on a few sparkling T-shirts from Forever 21 at Pentagon City Mall and was OOC (out of cash). Her brother made $1 in interest after putting $50 in a bank for a year. Janelle gave all of her money to her mother for food. Mary, with $50 launches Season Sentiments Gift Company and made a few thousand dollars her first two months in business and is trying to figure out how to stock her inventory in her dorm room.

Since our inception in 1994, NFTE-Greater Washington has expanded from 200 to 18,000 students served, providing entrepreneurship education to youth as a pathway to prosperity by way of experiential academic programming that reinforces math, reading, writing, and entrepreneurial mindset and develops skills in critical thinking, teamwork, communication, and decision-making. We have remained focused on serving youth from low-income communities by targeting schools where 40% of students qualify for the federally-funded reduced or free lunch program. We serve males and females ages 11-19 from the District of Columbia, Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties, Maryland, and Northern Virginia.


In a study called ‘The Silent Epidemic’ commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we learned the shocking statistic that 30% of American youth drop out of high school before graduation. What makes this reality even more frustrating to us is that 81% of those who dropped out said that they would have stayed in school if they were learning more about the “real world” and taking courses “relevant” to their futures. 7000 young people that woke up this morning dropped out of school today. It seems so simple to us at NFTE, that if our schools were teaching entrepreneurship in the fundamental curriculum, we would have less kids dropping out of high school, less debate on how to ‘fix our schools’, and more high-school graduates who are economically productive members of society.


Entrepreneurship education evokes strong interest in young people because it uniquely combines their personal interests with making money in the marketplace. Entrepreneurship sparks creativity and imagination and is at the root of self-expression, self-actualization, business success, and personal freedom. No matter what path a young person chooses – whether employee or self-employed – entrepreneurship education can be a pivotal learning opportunity and transformational experience for many children of disadvantage.

In the United States, NFTE is at the heart of the true meaning of the “American Dream” because the foundation gives opportunities to youth of all backgrounds and circumstances. Globally, NFTE’s program is highly relevant because of today’s increasingly competitive work environment. Individuals with developed business skills and an entrepreneurial mindset have a significant and valuable advantage over others, making this kind of learning essential to youth from low-income communities. Without entrepreneurship education in poorer cities and countries around the world, the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” will continue to grow worse.

Learning entrepreneurship is a fundamental life skill that has been proven to positively impacts young people’s sense of well-being and locus of control. Research by the Harvard School of Education on NFTE’s impact on youth showed that at-risk children who receive entrepreneurship training have: a stronger desire to seek higher education, do more independent reading, feel more connected to their schools and communities and feel more in control of their lives and the future.


There is an amazing group of leaders continually convening for the second time this May to look at how we can expand entrepreneurship to low-income youth in America’s Schools. NFTE has partnered with the Aspen Institute to create the first-ever Youth Entrepreneurship Strategy (YES) Group, funded by grants from E*TRADE Financial. Many of our great colleagues in the field from JA to DECA to America’s Promise, ACTE and Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education are members.

You can access the YES Group’s first report here titled ‘Advancing Entrepreneurship Education’ to stay informed and hopefully, engage with us on this MISSION. It’s POSSIBLE!:

Link to report

Add Link to Silent Epidemic Study and John Hopkins Study

Add Link to Babson College

Add Link to America’s Promise Drop Out Summits

Please feel free to contact Julie Kantor directly at to discuss how we can expand Entrepreneurship into America’s schools and more!

[1] Bridgeland, John M., et al. (March 2006). The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts. A report in association with Peter D. Hart Research Association for the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises

[1] National Council on Economic Education (June 2007). Survey of the States: Economic and Personal Finance Education in Our Nation’s Schools in 2007. New York: National Council on Economic Education


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