Steve Mariotti, a former business executive who turned to teaching, found that he could engage his inner-city students in traditional subjects by teaching them to become entrepreneurs. He is the co-author of The Young Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting and Running a Business.
In 1982, seasoned business executive Steve Mariotti made a dramatic career change and became a special education/business teacher in the New York City school system, volunteering to teach in such troubled neighborhoods as Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and the Fort Apache section of the South Bronx. In an attempt to engage his students in class, Mariotti decided to tap into his business experience and bring entrepreneurial education to low-income youths. In 1987, he founded the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE).
NFTE has become a major force in promoting and teaching entrepreneurial literacy and basic business skills to at-risk and disadvantaged young people in this country and abroad. The organization has served more than 30,000 young people and trained more than 1,200 teachers and youth workers.
Mariotti, a former treasury analyst for the Ford Motor Company and founder of an import-export company, has received numerous honors and awards for his work in the field of youth entrepreneurship. He has co-authored 16 books, including The Young Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting and Running a Business.
Education World talked with Mariotti about his unique approach to reaching young people through entrepreneurial education.
Education World: What inspired you to teach entrepreneurship in inner-city schools rather than traditional subjects such as reading and math?
Steve Mariotti: I was trying to teach traditional subjects, and the kids weren't listening! They simply couldn't see the relevance to their own lives. It was only when I talked about my experience in business that the kids started paying attention. And when I started talking about how they could turn their own talents and interests into businesses, they were really listening. But in order to be successful in business, you need to know math, reading, and writing -- so I was teaching that too, but now the kids could apply it right away.
EW: In your book, you share some pretty dramatic examples of successful young entrepreneurs. Tell us about one example from your experience that you find particularly interesting or inspiring.
Mariotti: I love the story of Malik Armstead. He used to sell homemade cakes and pies during lunch breaks in his mostly black Philadelphia high school. After studying with [the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship] NFTE, he started a small retail business to put himself through Morehouse College. Then he got a job as a financial analyst, but he really wanted to run a soul-food restaurant. No bank would give him a loan, so he and his fiance used all their own savings to start the restaurant, called Five Spot, in Brooklyn in 1996. It's now very successful. The thing that's so inspiring about Malik, aside from the fact that he's a wonderful young man, is that he kept his dream in the back of his mind the whole time he was going to college and working at Morgan Stanley. When he had the education, experience, and the money he needed, he turned his dream into a reality. I love the food at Five Spot, by the way.
EW: How did you come to start the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship and what have you accomplished with the organization?
Mariotti: I founded the NFTE after teaching entrepreneurship in New York City public schools for several years. I realized that there was a limit to the number of students one teacher could reach. I believed I had an idea that could work for a lot of kids who were being left behind and that's why I started NFTE in 1987. Since then, we have reached more than 30,000 young people through more than 1,200 NFTE-trained teachers in 43 states and 14 countries. We also recently started an Internet-based curriculum called BizTech to help us reach even more students. BizTech is a complete teacher-facilitated business curriculum that also gives students valuable computer and Internet skills.
EW: In your book, you present case studies about young people starting such businesses as selling home-baked goods, caring for pets, doing yardwork, and cleaning houses. Share a few sure-fire ideas not mentioned in your book for entrepreneurial ventures that young people can launch.
Mariotti: The most important thing for a young person trying to start his or her own business is to find something he or she cares about enough to really work at and that there's a need for in the community. He or she knows the community better than someone who doesn't live there possibly could. That said, young people can provide many services to earn money. Doing simple household repairs for those who are not technically inclined, running errands, or waiting for repair people while clients are at work are all good. And many young people are much more adept than adults with computers, and that kind of help is much appreciated and may be better paid than other areas.
EW: What characteristics common to many young people help make them successful entrepreneurs? How do those traits fuel their entrepreneurship?
Mariotti: Young people have some real advantages in starting their own businesses. For one thing, unlike adults who have been in the working world for a while and have financial responsibilities, they don't have much to lose! They don't have to worry about what's going to happen to the mortgage payment if the business doesn't take off. They are also much more flexible than many older workers who are used to working for large corporations. Many low-income kids, in particular, have enormous strength and determination, which are essential to entrepreneurship.
EW: In your book, you say budding entrepreneurs become better citizens. How does that happen?
Mariotti: I think young entrepreneurs become better citizens because starting a business forces them to interact with the community more and to better understand their place in it. They realize that other people are potential customers, suppliers, and mentors and that they have to treat them with respect. Once they know what it takes to run a business, they have a lot more respect for people who've done it.
EW: How can teachers help young people overcome the obstacles they may face in transforming themselves into entrepreneurs?
Mariotti: Teachers can be instrumental in helping young people develop connections with adults in their communities who can help them. Even if they don't know anyone who can mentor a student or serve on his or her advisory board, they can teach and model the idea that adults are valuable sources of help and should be treated as such.
EW: Do you believe entrepreneurship leads to more security than working as an employee for someone else?
Mariotti: Working as an entrepreneur is not necessarily more secure than working for someone else. Most new businesses, even those that are started by adults with more experience, connections, and capital than most young people have, fail. But if you like working for yourself, you can and should use failure as a learning experience and try again. The advantage of working for yourself is that every aspect of the business, except for the economy you operate in, is under your control. You will work very hard, but you'll be doing what you want to do. And since working for others is not secure either, if you like the idea of being your own boss, you should try it.
EW: How do you respond to critics who say teaching entrepreneurship focuses too much on money and teaches the wrong values?
Mariotti: I believe providing quality products or services that people need is a great way for young people to help their communities as well as themselves. If they get successful enough that they hire other people from the community, that's even better! Sure, our students are interested in making money, and maybe a few of them are overly interested in that aspect of business, but that's true of any group of people. We're helping people who might not otherwise have an opportunity to become economically self-sufficient do so, and we're proud of that. We've seen the effect that this training has on the students in terms of self-esteem and understanding of the world they live in, and we've seen that the kids become better citizens as a result. We also try to teach our students not to have unrealistic financial expectations, so they don't get disappointed, but to have enough confidence in themselves to be able to succeed.
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