College & Workforce Readiness

Inner-City Youths Tackle Business

By Sean Cavanagh — April 26, 2005 1 min read

Sixteen years ago, Steve Mariotti took a group of high school dropouts from the South Bronx on a tour of a wholesale watch dealer’s operation. The trip was meant as a real-world business tutorial, but Mr. Mariotti remembers that one of his young charges soon surprised him with an observation of absolute capitalist clarity.

The teenager remarked that it wouldn’t make sense for him to buy the watches, even if he personally liked them. What mattered, he explained to his older guide, was that he couldn’t resell them for a profit in his neighborhood.

“He was thinking about the marketplace,” Mr. Mariotti recalled with admiration.

A former New York City special education teacher, Mr. Mariotti came to believe that many disadvantaged youths from the inner city possessed the sort of intuitive business skills he witnessed that day. In 1987, he launched the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, which seeks to teach teenagers business lessons and helps them establish their own business enterprises—a process that supporters say also builds academic and life skills.

With support from the Microsoft Corp., the Goldman Sachs Foundation, and others, the NFTE (www.nfte.com) to date has worked with more than 100,000 young people from poor communities in 45 states and 13 countries.

The foundation this week was expected to honor more than 30 business projects at an awards dinner in New York City. The awardees were to include Luis M. Villa, who, along with a few classmates at East Palo Alto High School in California, fashioned and sold canvas belts stitched with a bandanna design, for a business they dubbed Latin Style.

Mr. Villa, 16, and his co-entrepreneurs have made $580 so far, he said. Not all their salesmanship is about profit: They modeled color schemes for the belts to avoid any association with known gangs in their community.

“It’s a very big problem,” Mr. Villa said of those gangs. “We hope to make people come together and unite them.”

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