As part of my efforts to foster entrepreneurism in the Metro DC area, I've gotten involved with a stellar organization called NFTE (the Network For for Teaching Entrepreneurship), which focuses on encouraging young people to be entrepreneurs (mostly high schoolers, I believe).

I recently visited Ms. Gloria Taylor's class at Eastern High School in Washington, DC (located in NorthEast DC) to talk to her students about what being an entrepreneur is all about.

NFTE has a textbook that teachers can follow and a course curriculum that spans the school year where the students create a business plan and compete in a competition.  The winners then advance to regional and national levels.

So far, I've judged in one regional competition and visited two DC high schools.  I've realized a few key things.  The first is that these kids, almost without exception, don't realize what their potential is.  It seems that they've generally grown up in a world that wasn't friendly to them or their families.  Any entrepreneur knows that luck is equal parts preparation, planning, initiative, and just being at the right place at the right time (as often as possible).   I find that most of these students don't realize that they're in control of their own destiny, if they really choose to be.  They are often resigned to following a path that others have taken, and that doesn't seem to usually include entrepreneurship.

One of the first things I really try to impress on these kids is that they could leave school that day and start making money, if they wanted to badly enough.  They just have to want it.

There's absolutely nothing stopping them from achieving their goals, if they want it enough.   One example I showed the kids at Eastern High School was the "Hoos Savings Club Cards" I produced & sold in college while at U.Va.  (It's part of how I paid for college.  The other main project I had was producing U.Va. branded Frisbees, but that's another story.)

A friend and I went around to 12 local retailers in Charlottesville, VA and convinced them to offer discounts to anyone who was carrying this credit-card sized "Hoos Savings Club" card.  The card would be valid for one school year.  The retailers were willing to offer the discounts because students would patronize their stores more often because of the discount.

We got these dozen retailers to offer discounts to students holding our card, and then we sold the cards for $10 each (you could probably get away with selling them for $20 each today).

One of the retailers offering a discount was Kroger, a grocery store chain in the area.  They offered $2 off any purchase over $20; as much as a 10% discount on your grocery bill!

I literally put a folding table & chair out front of Kroger and sat there pitching cards for most of the school year.  My pitch was "if you use the card 5 times in the course of the school year and save $2 each time, you've made back the cost of the card."  It was very effective.  We must have sold thousands of cards.

I used this example with the Eastern high school kids to show them that it's possible to create value from nothing, if you really want to.  I'm not sure the message really sunk in... these kids seem so disinterested to me.  It's really hard to connect with them... it's like they don't believe what you're telling them because they've never actually seen it.  They don't have any good role models.

An analogy would probably be that if you had never seen an airplane, and someone told you that there was this vehicle that weighed many tons that could fly, would you believe them?  I can imagine it being very hard to convince somebody that a very heavy object could fly like a bird.  That's what it feels like I'm up against with these kids.  I just hope some of them can see that they are in fact in control of their own destinies, and that I can play a part in helping them see it.