Houston Middle School students, Youth Entrepreneur Program

Houston School middle schoolers business fit to a tee (12/5/06)

The entrepreneurs are getting younger. For the last few years, The Business Center at New Covenant Campus in Mt. Airy has run an Urban Youth Entrepreneur program in area high schools where students develop and execute a business idea, while providing themselves with a vision for a productive future. This fall not only has The Business Center expanded the program into other areas of the city, but it decided to introduce a seven-week program at the middle school level.

“The Business Center understands that entrepreneurship education is transformative and pushes students to move out of their comfort zone and imagine themselves as ‘the boss,’” said Solomon Wheeler, Director of Entrepreneurial Programs at The Business Center. “This idea of being in charge of your own livelihood, along with the rewards it brings, can dramatically improve confidence and focus. We observed children as young as seven years of age respond positively to the program material.”

Recently, sixth, seventh and eighth grade students at Henry Houston School in Mt. Airy talked about and worked on their t-shirt business. Students and facilitator Marie Lambert, who is not a Houston staff person, learned from the process that running a business is not easy, but not impossible. Lambert, a preschool teacher for 20 years, was excited by the opportunity to work with older students. One hurdle, however, was that the Entrepreneurial Program was grouped among electives in the School District’s Emerging Scholars program and none of the students in the entrepreneurial class had selected it as their first choice. Lambert had to find something that would resonate with the students.

“These were the ‘left over’ kids and we had to deal with that for the first couple of weeks,” she said. “This also had to incorporate the arts and none of the kids were into art. When I mentioned a T-shirt sale, it miraculously breathed life in the class. The idea of making money intrigued them.”

“When she told us this would be a class where we’d be selling stuff and earning money, I thought this is going to be really good,” said sixth-grader David Jackson. “We also get to go on trips to other businesses.”

“I thought the class was going to be boring, but this has been fun and exciting doing something different you don’t do every day,” added fellow sixth-grader Najla King. “When she mentioned the T-shirt sale, ideas started popping out of our heads. We loved the idea because we and our friends wear T-shirts.”

Ironically, the students who weren’t interested in art were now painting white T-shirts. “You saw the creativity come out,” said Lambert. “They were very artistic. They never considered making money designing T-shirts.”

The class was split into two groups and each chose a leader, treasurer and advertising/public relations person. A father of one of the students was able to get a wholesale deal on white T-shirts. Each team came up with different ideas for the shirts and approaches to selling them. Being the same ages as their potential markets, they acted as their own focus groups. The money earned at the end will be pooled and the winning team will decide on a special activity the whole class can spend with the money.

“We brainstormed and predicted what kids might like,” said Jackson. “My friend, Dwayne (Bowser) and I decided to do shirts with ‘Eagles vs. Colts, Super Bowl XLI.’ We noticed around school a lot of people wear Eagles and Colts jerseys.”

Customization – how much a customer wanted on the shirt — drove their pricing decisions. They also wrestled with taking orders first and then designing the shirt or selling pre-designed shirts. “The team that chose paint and sell sold all but one of their shirts. The other team saw the difference in their plans,” said Lambert.

Students from three grades working together proved a valuable lesson, too. “We get along with the seventh and eighth graders because we have to work together,” said King. “It’s hard to run a business. You’re under pressure when you have deadlines and you have to work with the right people. You can’t work with quitters. You have to have people willing to do something. It’s fun making money from a good activity.”

“They learned about teamwork and that teamwork is a challenge,” said Lambert. “I saw groups working as a team and kids doing individual things within the group. At the beginning of the class, I asked what type of business they would start if they could start their own business. How do you turn a passion into something that makes money? It was intriguing to them but they didn’t get the whole gist of the program. I talked about Puffy Coombs and Russell Simmons, hip hop artists who run their own businesses. These kids know them and buy their clothes and shoes. When I put it that way, they saw what might be possible.”

Among the biggest challenges was the time to market the T-shirts when they themselves have to be in class all day, but then again, there was a lesson learned there, too. For some of these students, the best lesson was that you could make money by running a “good” business.

“Miss Lambert taught us that we can sell stuff that are not bad and you can’t go to jail for,” said Jackson. “When I get older I would like to teach kids you can sell things that are legal and good and have a lot of customers. Donovan McNabb is my role model and he has a clothing line out. I would like to sell shirts of different colors and waterproof sneakers because there aren’t a lot of waterproof sneakers.”

He’ll remember that he learned the basics in a class he originally didn’t want to take.