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Big Wheels On Campus

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With a timely shove in the right direction, he believes, "kids like that'' can make an honest living.

Mariotti is founder and president of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship to Handicapped and Disadvantaged Youth--a long name, with a reach to match. In Manhattan, the South Bronx, Brooklyn, Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia, Mariotti and his team of teachers are doling out financial knowhow--and venture capital--to keep children from growing up to become a financial drain.

He recruits them through word-ofmouth and, more often than not, on the basketball court. Once hooked, "I take the kids through everything they need to run a small business,'' says Mariotti. "There's a trip to the stock exchange. We visit the wholesalers. I teach basic record keeping, marketing, how to fill out a tax return, venture capital, how to register a business.''

The students are also obliged to practice their burgeoning business skills in the classroom, making practice sales calls, which are videotaped and critiqued.

Each year, the roughly 900 students who complete the 100-hour course--taught by Mariotti and five full-time teachers at four New York City high schools, the Boys' and Girls' clubs of Newark, and even Rikers Island Prison--are guaranteed $25 to $75 in seed money to start a business. Any student still in business three months after the initial grant gets another $50, and so on, up to $3,000. At that point, the students have to submit a detailed business plan and income statement for approval.

The cash comes from $500,000 in foundation grants and gifts from private individuals.

Despite his best efforts, Mariotti recognizes that most of his students will go on to work for someone else-- in which case, he says, they will have acquired basic business skills and learned something positive about themselves. "What you're doing,'' he says, "is planting a seed. All the famous guys--Henry Ford, McDonald's Ray Kroc, GM's Billy Durant-- started out with a kid business.''

At any given time, he says, about 100 of his graduates are running businesses. "They sell watches, ties, socks, T-shirts,'' he says. "We've got services to the elderly, two wordprocessing services, catering services, a commercial artist, two hot dog carts, and five or six caddie businesses.''

Of the most aggressive graduates, perhaps five or six will maintain a business long-term, making between $3,000 and $20,000 a year.

And a few of them have the potential to go big time. For example:

Howard Stubbs, 18, pushes his own hot dog cart day and night. He recently earned a $44,000 scholarship to Johnson & Wales College.

Vincent Wilkins, 19, once made $200 a day standing lookout for drug dealers. He now makes less-- about $175 a day--recording neighborhood rap artists.

Arthur Garvin, 19, who works on Mariotti's staff, started out selling Tshirts and "shades'' and later developed a business videotaping local rappers. He recently joined his boss in presenting a lecture on entrepreneurship at the Harvard Business School. "He stole the show,'' Mariotti says.

Mariotti's concern for education came from a surprising source. In 1982, he was operating a string of businesses in and around New York City when he was attacked and beaten by a street gang. Traumatized by the incident, he opted for a kind of totalimmersion therapy: teaching in the city's toughest high schools.

His first job was teaching business education. He quickly became convinced that by emphasizing typing and filing, schools were training kids to become clerks. Mariotti wanted to give them the keys to the front office.

He began by bringing them up to speed in basic math and reading skills. But he always combined the basics with lessons on how to start and manage a business. One of his biggest successes, he recalls, was teaching a girls' special-education class to read and write using an Avon training manual for salespeople.

His methods worked amazingly well, Mariotti says, but most school administrators didn't share his enthusiasm for the unorthodox approaches. He was shuffled through the system before coming to rest, at last, in 1985 at the Jane Addams Vocational High School in the South Bronx.

Phyllis Laperchia, assistant principal for special education at Jane Addams, gave Mariotti a sympathetic ear. Says Laperchia: "We had talked extensively about his idea before it was born. So we put him into an off-site program at the city office of housing complaints. In the morning, the kids were given jobs, and in the afternoon, Steve taught remedial reading and English and math skills related to business. He started teaching some of the kids entrepreneurial skills.''

Eventually, he decided he wanted to reach beyond one school. So, in 1987, he left to set up his foundation.

In the end, Mariotti believes, one foundation is not the answer. Real change has to begin in the schools. Inner-city schools, he says, should be "run more like businesses, with teacher ownership and a voucher system.'' And entrepreneurship should be made a major part of the curriculum.

At the Addams school, Laperchia is taking some steps in that direction. After Mariotti left, she started a retail academy--a little shop within the school called "Addams' Apple.'' It is run by youngsters in the school's special-education department and sells everything from school supplies to stuffed animals. Beginning this year, the retail academy will also open an in-school frozen yogurt store, sponsored by a national chain. "It's a lab for all retail skills, anything from being the best stockroom person to owning a business,'' says Laperchia.

In Mariotti's eyes, the entrepreneurial experiment at Jane Addams is something other schools could emulate. If they did, he notes, the schools would only be taking advantage of the instincts we all start out with--those of the risk-taker. These days, those instincts too often go to waste on drugs and crime.

-Jeff Meade

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