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The Young-Girl Network

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It's a crisp October morning in the nation's capital. Groggy commuters emerge from the bustling downtown metro station with briefcases in one hand, newspapers in the other.

A group of ceo's makes its way to an office building on 16th Street, just a few blocks north of the White House. They're en route to advise a group of 100 aspiring entrepreneurs at a daylong conference on how to start a business. Names are exchanged, hands shaken, coffee poured. Let the networking begin.

But that's where the stereotypical scene ends. The hopeful entrepreneurs gathered here aren't thirtysomething professionals looking to make a career change. They're still in high school. And they don't reflect the demographics of the nation's business owners. They're all girls. What's more, the power brokers doling out advice didn't make it by climbing up someone else's corporate ladder. They're all women who struck out to start their own businesses. And now they want to help their younger counterparts do the same.

Entrepreneurial Advice

The event is one of a half-dozen regional conferences sponsored each year by An Income of Her Own, a nonprofit group that encourages teenage girls to become entrepreneurs, with a particular emphasis on girls from minority groups and low-income families.

Founder Joline Godfrey calls An Income of Her Own "an action response to reduce the economic vulnerability of women and girls."

Godfrey is herself an entrepreneur. In 1986, after a 10-year stint with the Polaroid Corporation, she started Odysseum Inc., a company that created educational games for Fortune 500 companies to use in staff development.

In 1990, she sold her successful business and turned her attention to writing Our Wildest Dreams: Women Entrepreneurs Making Money, Having Fun, Doing Good. Over the course of her research for the book, Godfrey discovered that most women entrepreneurs didn't think about launching their own businesses until they were in their late 30's. At the same time, she was concerned about the economic outlook for American women: About a third of divorced or separated women with children live below the poverty line, and, in some urban areas, up to 50 percent of girls drop out of high school.

Godfrey's book hit the shelves in 1992. Soon after its release came the influential and controversial American Association of University Women report "How Schools Shortchange Girls," a review of more than 1,000 studies about how girls fare in schools. The increasing awareness of the hurdles girls must overcome--both in and out of the classroom--convinced Godfrey that it was time for a change.

So that same year, she teamed up with Karen Canright Schafer, the former publisher of The San Francisco Business Times magazine, to launch An Income of Her Own. The two began hosting their daylong conferences to teach young girls leadership skills and basic economic concepts. At the same time, they set out to introduce participants to women business owners and other resources in their communities.

The recent Washington conference for girls from area public and private schools, for example, showcased some 40 area entrepreneurs, including the owners of a film-production company, a cultural-diversity training firm, and an engineering-consulting business.

What's more, all of the businesswomen attended the conference on their own time. "This is happening," Godfrey says, "because thousands of women around the country want the next generation of women to have it better than they have."

"I want to help young girls understand there are so many options available," says Jo‰lle Lofton, one of the day's featured guests. Lofton, the founder and president of Elements In Style Inc., a North Potomac, Md., company that produces technical reports for such clients as the Food and Drug Administration and the University of Maryland, arrived with her 4-month-old son in tow. Her day-care arrangements had fallen through, but Lofton didn't let that stop her. Instead, she used the setback to show the girls--including several teenage mothers--that success in business and parenting aren't mutually exclusive.

The morning starts off with an icebreaker: "Network Bingo." Designed to teach the girls how to communicate and share information in informal social settings, the exercise provides each participant with a game card and lets her loose in the large room. The goal: to fill in the card by making contact with the businesswomen described in the corresponding squares on her card. Such descriptions as "once worked for the United Nations" and "performs miracles 24 hours a day" make mastering the finer points of networking both educational and fun.

Bingo winners take home prizes: a gift certificate from a local bookstore or a "broken glass ceiling" pin designed by artist Vivian Shimoyama. As the day progresses, the girls will have their shot at a variety of other prizes, too.

After a round of more formal speaker introductions, the conference moves into high gear with another game, "Show What You Know."

Sheila Brooks, the owner of a company that produces training and informational videos, asks the girls how many think they know something about business. Only a few raise their hands.

But then she asks, "Who makes money at rap concerts?" And sure enough, the girls shout out a rapid-fire series of answers: promoters, producers, vendors, record companies, security services, limousine companies. One creative thinker even yells, "scalpers."

At the end of the game, when Brooks asks again how many of the girls know something about business, everyone's hands shoot up. "You know more about business than you think you know," she chuckles knowingly.

Real-World Scenarios

In the afternoon, the girls break into small groups to test their luck--and skill--at the "An Income of Her Own" board game. Playing in teams of two, each pair starts out $10,000 in debt. The objective: to get to the center of the board first and win $30,000 to pay off their loans and expand their businesses.

At the roll of the die, players draw cards posing a series of questions about everything from famous female entrepreneurs to ethical business practices. But instead of "Do not pass go. Go directly to jail" game cards, players might select "Bad luck, you bounced a check to your supplier. Deduct $1,000."

As they move around the board, they'll also encounter complex case studies. One card reads: "You are a talented computer illustrator. Your business is really starting to take off in your own community, but you can't seem to break out into the rest of the city. Your communications skills are excellent, and you are beginning to feel there may be some racist-based reluctance on the part of some people to give you a try. What can you do?"

A thoughtful debate ensues. "You can send potential clients a sample of your work," suggests Jennifer Ali, a senior at Wilson Senior High School here. "If they really like it, and they really need it, then they might just forget about it," she muses. "But if they can't accept you for who you are, you just go ahead and move on."

One of the strengths of An Income of Her Own's board game is its realistic approach, according to Judy Cobbs, the western regional director for Girls Inc., formerly known as Girls Clubs of America. "It doesn't make owning a business look like it's going to be easy."

Toward the end of the day, the girls have the chance to hear from a panel of three young women who have already started their own businesses: Leslie Crutchfield, the 26-year-old founder of Who Cares, a magazine on volunteerism; Yen Nguyen, a 19-year-old mother of two and the president of Magical Rainbow Books, a bilingual coloring-book company, (See related story ); and Marie Cole, an 18-year-old mother of a 2-year-old who started "Marie's Lovely Nails" out of her home.

All-Around Outreach

To date, An Income of Her Own has reached 1,000 girls through regional conferences like these, an additional 1,500 through satellite broadcasts, and 30 others through its first eight-day summer camp this year in Palm Springs, Calif.

When she first launched the program, Godfrey admits, she wasn't sure she'd find a ready audience. But in her conversations with young women, she soon discovered that it was too often like talking to girls from the 1950's.

"All those myths about kissing frogs and men on white horses are still present," she says. At one school, she asked girls, "How are you going to support yourselves when you grow up?" One quickly responded, "By marrying a rich man." Many others raised their hands in agreement. So she pressed on. "How many of you know rich boys now?" she asked. And a lot of hands went down.

"We have to teach kids now how to initiate and how to make jobs," she asserts, "It's a 21st century enterprise that we probably should have started 20 years ago."

An Income of Her Own has also created trading cards with pictures and facts about successful businesswomen. And this fall, the nonprofit will launch another outreach effort: an eight-week program in entrepreneurship in six public high schools in California.

It sponsors an annual business-plan competition, too. This year, 250 girls entered the contest--which it advertises in such magazines as Sassy, Inc., and Black Enterprise--up from about 100 in its first year. One past winner started a mail-order business selling clothes for tall girls. Another launched a company specializing in hand-painted scarves and clothes.

Each year, An Income of Her Own flies the six winners to an awards ceremony. The young entrepreneurs also receive a free business newsletter; a "business-resource kit" filled with books, software programs, and a briefcase; and a year's worth of coaching from female business owners and academicians.

An Income of Her Own is just one of several new groups teaching young people how to start their own businesses. And Godfrey has won praise from many of her colleagues.

"Joline Godfrey is one of the great minds in America working in this field," says Steve Mariotti, the founder of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a New York City-based group that reaches out to low-income teenagers in urban schools, boys' and girls' clubs, and community centers. What works best about An Income of Her Own, he says, is that it is simple and to the point. "There's a great beauty to that. It enables them to reach a lot of kids at low cost."

(See education, too.

"Remember Barbie's prom game?" asked Jeanie M. Barnett, the editor of Women's Business Exclusive, in one of her newsletter columns last year. "The object was to move around the board and draw the right cards to get the fabulous gown, the Caddy convertible, some spending money from Daddy, and a date to the prom with Ken, the big man on campus. Someone (usually me) always got stuck with Poindexter, the freckle-face nerd in Coke-bottle glasses and a bad crewcut."

Barnett was reminded of Barbie's prom game while watching some 75 high school girls playing An Income of Her Own's board game at one of its recent conferences in California.

"Not only were they having fun," she says, but "everyone seemed to be winning something. Had we this kind of game when I was growing up, I would never have gotten stuck on a date with Poindexter again," she adds. "I would have hired him."

For more information about An Income of Her Own, write P.O. Box 8452, San Jose, Calif. 95155-8452; or call (800) 350-2978.

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