Trading in experience

10th March 1995 at 00:00
An American scheme for training those from poor areas in streetwise business skills has now crossed the Atlantic. Reva Klein meets some youthful entrepreneurs. New York businessman Steve Mariotti's life changed when he was mugged for $10 by a group of teenagers in 1981. No, he didn't become a vigilante gunning down kids in back-to-front baseball hats. Neither did he retreat into a depressive shell. Like any other self-respecting New Yorker, he took himself off to a shrink. There he was told that to come to terms with the experience, he should try to understand the mind-set of his attackers.

Mariotti went one further. He jacked in his business, did teacher training and got a job in arguably the most crime-ridden, deprived, depressed and depressing borough in the city the Bronx. He found a lot of creative energy that, for want of plausible alternatives, was being channelled into truancy, violence and crime. He decided to present a positive alternative to these kids. And what better option for those who were dispossessed of the American Dream than the very thing that the dream represents making money?

Streetsmart MBA documents Steve Mariotti's philosophy and how it is now being introduced to Britain. As he puts it, "I think that children who have grown up in poverty and under a lot of psychological and emotional stress develop many of the characteristics of the great entrepreneurs. They develop chutzpah they can sell and they become streetsmart".

Drawing on these teenagers' natural inclinations to make a fast buck, he set up the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, known as NFTE (pronounced "nifty"). Its rationale is to equip these deprived kids with the basic principles of business so they can escape the vicious circle of crime and poverty. In its first nine years, 7,000 teenagers have attended NFTE's business studies courses.

As well as class and written work, they are given money with which to set up a small business and put all the theory into practice namely, the oft-repeated mantra "buy low, sell high, keep good records". The fringe benefits go beyond profit margins: improvements in numeracy, literacy and, most importantly, self-esteem.

A Harvard team evaluating the project in New York has found that NFTE graduates are more likely to succeed in holding down a job and less likely to get into crime or unwanted early pregnancy than their peers. Considering the fact that many of the students have committed or been the victims of violence, the fact that over 90 per cent complete the course and that half are still in jobs six months later is quite remarkable.

The idea has been brought to Britain by Silvia Pearson, who trained as a NFTE teacher in the United States. With funding from private donations and the Central London Training and Enterprise Council, she has just seen through the second British course, in Kensington and Chelsea in west London.

The first British course began with 12 students at the Latimer Centre, Ladbroke Grove, west London, for truants and pupils who have been excluded from other schools. Among the group, one had been excluded for a drugs-related incident, another for violent behaviour, with most of the others long-term truants. Although two were taken off the course for gross misconduct, one NFTE tutor, Kerry-Lee Murdoch, says that "just having these kids turn up for the course week after week has gobsmacked their teachers at the centre."

The three-month, 80-hour Master of Business Administration curriculum covers 50 basic business lessons and "field work". For this, they are each given Pounds 50 to set up their own businesses from stalls in nearby Portobello Market, with the object of the exercise being to make a profit and to reinforce social and business skills that have been covered in the lessons. One participant said: "You have to be polite and honest."

Another, Wesley Elijah Lovello, 15, doesn't mince words about his motivation for coming onto the course. "It was the idea of making some money legally, " he admits. He had been "involved in kind of like business before. It comes easy to me." Real, as opposed to kind-of-like business, seems to come easy to him, too. Selling audio tapes on his market staff, he made an impressive profit of Pounds 44.

Bouchre Nagouri, who is 16, sold cosmetics and took the capitalist principles of "buy low, sell high" very seriously, marking her merchandise up three-fold. What she liked about the NFTE course was the fact that "there's a lot of trust. It's not everyone that would put Pounds 50 in your hand and tell you to go out and buy goods." Her business acumen won her second prize at the NFTE "graduation" ceremony. "My parents think it's wicked!" But the lure of lucre has been too much for the girl. "I'm not going to go into further education. I'm sick of not having any money of my own."

But the red-blooded entrepreneurialism of the New York scheme is changing in its translation from the United States to Britain. Bertie Ross, principal tutor of the course, is a Grenadian born ex-teacher who is now an educational consultant specialising in working with disaffected young people. He found the American NFTE course aggressive in tone and approach and accordingly has taken out "the militaristic imagery, the jargon and the thought for the day cliches. The idea that young people learn by being slammed to the floor metaphorically is not one I can agree with. These kids already know how to destroy things. It's not a good learning experience."

But Ross is no push-over. He sets goals and boundaries, but does so within an ethos of mutual respect. He gives time to and listens to his students and expects them to do the same for him.

Silvia Pearson, too, believes that "there's a lot wrong with the MBA model which we'll be adapting". The hard-nosed Thatcherite resonances of the MBA is something she wishes to eradicate. "I don't like to talk about entrepreneurship as much as about self-employment. You don't have to have Alan Sugar ambitions. The reality is that the British economy is becoming increasingly one which is requiring children to learn how to use their minds to slot into self-employed roles." Her aim is to restructure NFTE, developing it into a teacher training organisation, providing teaching materials and a curriculum for use in mainstream schools, with some sort of recognised accreditation such as an NVQ.

For Bertie Ross and Silvia Pearson, NFTE UK isn't about mimicking American Dreamers or buttressing the self-made millionaire ideal so loved of Eighties Conservatives. Rather, it's about equipping children and young people for the hard times ahead, where there are are no jobs for life and where individual motivation, confidence and some basic skills will separate the achievers from everybody else. Says Bertie Ross, "Since the Eighties we've seen a drastic change in the political and economic outlook. There is a clear political divide today between those who run businesses and those who don't. Kids at the bottom of the heap need more options to challenge the system."

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