Dispatches from St. Louis

July 1, 2014  |  36 comments

By Jane Walsh,
VP, Development

As someone whose job is Development (AKA fundraising), it is a rare opportunity when I get to co-lead a student program. NFTE “cross-training” as we sometimes call it, is a great way for staff members to get out of their regular day-to-day and directly be a part of the exciting work we do with youth. I have been raising funds for BizCamps for 15 years and I’ve had the chance to participate in several over the years, but admittedly it had been a while.
NFTE’s BizCamp program leads students through an intensive version of our “core” program which is typically held during the school year. However, this time students attend class full-time for a 2-week period (80 hours) over summer vacation. They don’t get paid, they don’t get a grade, and they have to get up early to be on time for an 8:30am start.

Like all NFTE programs, BizCamps are taught by skilled teachers and cover a wide variety of business and entrepreneurship literacy lessons in fun ways and at lightning speed. As the centerpiece of the program, students create and present an original business plan based on their own interests and talents which they then present in increasingly high stakes business plan competitions in the hope of advancing from classroom to semi-finals to finals – all with a chance of locking in one of two coveted spots to NFTE’s annual National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge and prizes totaling $25,000.

Through engaging lessons and a rich array of experiential activities, participants learn applied mathematics, and analytical and communications skills through the framework of entrepreneurship. The wholesale buying trip and selling event teaches students about purchasing, pricing, and selling, including the concept of buy low/sell high as the basis of making a profit. Technology is essential to the program – students learn to use word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation software as they develop their business ideas, create video commercials, and learn to use the Internet for market research, website development and e-commerce. Volunteer involvement is another essential component. Local business leaders and entrepreneurs bring subject matter expertise, real world perspective, and enhanced support to NFTE students as guest speakers, business plan coaches, field trips hosts, and competition judges.

In two weeks, the teachers and students have to move very quickly through both the course content and the business plan template. It’s not a lot of time to conceive, develop, test, refine, and pitch their ideas. Coaches make a substantial difference in this process by helping each student think critically about the viability of their plans. Every year I get excited to see the new ideas that students come up with. This year was no exception. The Start It Up St. Louis BizCamp had everything from colored toilet paper to magnetic shoelaces to wearable technology to charge your smart phone, plus several socially-conscious businesses and nonprofits to help youth fight important issues like bullying and domestic violence.

Programs like NFTE are important for myriad reasons. (I’m biased of course.) First, kids want opportunities to learn new things that can give them unique advantages. While it might take some cajoling to get them to the program on time, once they’re committed they become fiercely competitive and begin to stay past class time or work on their plans at home. They quickly seize upon and utilize the resources – namely volunteers – they are given. Second, teachers want the program. I hear over and over from seasoned and novice NFTE teachers alike that the NFTE program has given them a new way to get through to students who just didn’t see the value of school or believe they are capable of dreaming big about their futures. Entrepreneurship can capture the hearts, minds, and attention of some of the hardest to reach students. It is way for teachers to show students how they can build careers around their personal interests, skills, and talents. The St. Louis camp was no exception and I was in awe to see two dedicated NFTE teachers motivate and inspire students. Third, the workplace needs programs like NFTE. With growing demands on the future workforce to be problem-solvers, analytical, creative, and adaptable employees, entrepreneurship hits the mark on all of these skills and more. Whether it’s in the best interest of a company to support programs like NFTE for future employees or for the creation of new businesses to drive the economy, our program provides awareness, opportunity, and experience to youth.

MasterCard stepped up in a big way for NFTE’s students. Our camps were a big success in large measure because more than 40 MasterCard employees as well as others from the St. Louis Rams, Emerson, EY, Brighton Agency, Maxine Clark, and others lent their time and business experience to our students. This investment is not a one-time impact or experience. It will pay off ongoing in ways the volunteers may never know. The students will remember them for a long time, maybe forever. Really. I say it all the time, volunteers are NFTE’s required ingredient for any program to be successful.

While it is often the case, it is striking to me how personal many of the students’ business ideas are – ideas that are connected to what’s happening in their lives and neighborhoods and how they want to be part of solutions to make life better for themselves and those around them. I’m proud of the students who participated in BizCamp. It was a true privilege to watch 34 high school students grow over two weeks. They are a special group young people who want to succeed, who are smart and innovative, and who care about their futures and making the world a better place.

It often happens that students drop out of the program after the first or second day. It’s just a reality that some kids aren’t interested or can’t make the commitment. One student, Trayveon, quit after the second day and told us the program just wasn’t for him. On the second to last day of BizCamp he called my colleague Priya and apologized. She thanked him for the call and asked him to attend the finals the next day to show support for his friends. He came and he told Priya he wished he hadn’t quit.

Learning entrepreneurship as a teenager is a powerful tool for changing the futures of individuals, neighborhoods, cities, and the world. Stakeholders continue to strategically invest in the future of St. Louis and NFTE is proud to partner with MasterCard and others to create opportunities for youth.


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