By: Phyllis Furman
August 9, 2010
The faltering economy is raising demand for a program that teaches kids to become entrepreneurs
If you're like many parents who lose sleep worrying about their kids slipping away in a crowd, Steven Gordon may have a solution for you.
Steven isn't a dad - let alone an adult.
He's an 18-year-old recent graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School who last year launched TattooID, a company that makes customizable, temporary tattoos that parents can place on their kids to help identify them in the event they get lost.
"My brother - he's five years old - likes to run away," said the baby-faced mogul-in-the-making who will study nursing at Hunter College in the fall and hopes to one day start a home healthcare business. "I thought, how can I keep him safe in a fun way?"
Steven, who lives in Bergen Beach, Brooklyn, is one of thousands of New York City kids who've gotten an early shot at learning what it means to own and run a business courtesy of the nonprofit Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship.
Launched in 1987 by former New York City public school teacher Steve Mariotti out of his classroom in the South Bronx, NFTE trains teachers and provides curriculum to schools and other groups in low income neighborhoods - including 57 New York City public schools. The goal is to keep kids from dropping out of school, improve their academic skills and boost their self esteem.
"We change lives in 60 hours or less," said NFTE's CEO Amy Rosen.
Over the years, more than 300,000 kids who might have otherwise stumbled down the wrong path, have learned how to craft a business plan and hone their elevator pitch from NFTE's teachers and business exec mentors. Along the way, the organization has mushroomed into a global entrepreneurship engine with offices in 11 countries and an annual U.S. budget of $13.5 million.
With the economy in the doldrums, teaching kids how to control their own destinies by becoming business owners has taken on even greater urgency.
While NFTE's budget is down nearly 30% from its peak in 2008 because donations have waned, demand for the program from schools, government officials and community leaders has shot up.
"Inquiries have more than doubled," NFTE founder Mariotti said. "Kids are aware of how fragile a job is and they begin to think about how they could create a job if they had to."
NFTE graduate Kiante Young, 30, who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Harlem at the intersection of 141st St. and Seventh Ave., said his life might have been very different had he not enrolled in a NFTE course.
"I had every disadvantage you can imagine," said Young, whose mother raised him on her own. "I have many cousins who sell drugs."
As a teen attending Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, Young steered clear of NFTE because it was for "the nerdy kids." But he changed his mind after graduating and meeting some successful entrepreneurs.
Hoping to launch his own business, at age 21, Young enrolled in a NFTE summer class. Under the group's guidance, he launched Young & Doin It Marketing, which helps Fortune 500 companies promote their brands to the youth market.
"What was most beneficial for me was the business plan," Young said. "How could I succeed without a strategy?"
Young also got a leg up by meeting with business execs who volunteered their time to advise him. "I have a plethora of mentors who have been there and done it," he said.
At one point, Young's NFTE connections even helped him score a client. After attending a speech given by a Knicks exec at a NFTE event, he approached her with an idea and she signed on.
Young credits NFTE, "for showing me how to do it," a skill that is all the more important in a tough economy.
"In this economy, I am able to work for myself," he said. "I am still going strong."
Nia Froome, a 17-year-old from North Valley Stream, L.I. who attends Poly Prep Country Day School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, is still years away from having to worry about supporting herself. But NFTE has already helped her get started.
Nia, who is enrolled in Prep for Prep, a nonprofit that prepares gifted minority students to attend private schools, was thinking about becoming a doctor when she was offered a chance to take a free NFTE class last summer.
But one of her assignments - reading the mom-to-mogul success story of Debbi Fields, the founder of cookie chain Mrs. Fields - got the soft spoken teen pumped up about entrepreneurship.
"She was so amazing," Nia said.
An amateur baker whose parents are vegans - Nia's mother, Dawn Froome, gave up animal products after being diagnosed with breast cancer ten years ago - Nia decided she would start her own baked goods company, Mamma Nia's Vegan Bakery.
Since its launch last summer, Mamma Nia's has sold 800 cookies and 100 cinnamon rolls with a total take of $1,000. Nia, who this summer is an intern at JP Morgan Chase, is now thinking about pursuing a career in business or finance.
The NFTE experience "has opened me up to a whole different world," she said.
This coming October, Nia along with Steven Gordon, will take part in NFTE's premier event: the OppenheimerFunds/NFTE National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge, a competition that brings together some 30 students from across the country to present their business ideas before a panel of A-list judges.
Steven, who recently won first place in NFTE's New York Metro Regional Business Plan Competition, and Nia, who came in second, will compete for a $10,000 prize.
Nia said she's nervous, but hopeful about the outcome.
"I smile a lot," she said. "The judges will like that."