Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

Developing a ‘Success’ Orientation

By Stephanie Bell-rose & Steve Mariotti — March 24, 2004 5 min read
Youth-entrepreneurship education progams give students motivation and focus.

For 18-year-old Keisha Benjamin, who was born on the island of Grenada and now lives in Brooklyn, the thought of one day attending college and becoming a corporate lawyer was just a dream. For 15-year-old Patricia Swierszcz, a future career in engineering or pharmaceutical sales was an ambition ridiculed as boring and stuffy. Today, both Keisha and Patricia are top students actively pursuing these career objectives—and running their own businesses.

The catalyst for their achievements? Participation in a youth- entrepreneurship education program.

Such programs have been the subject of much debate within the academic community as to their role in enhancing academic performance, with critics dismissing them as auxiliary after-school activities.

However, there is compelling new evidence from researchers at Harvard University that indicates that young people who learn about entrepreneurship develop a “success” orientation and are more likely to be focused on becoming professionals and entering the workforce.

Not only are youth-entrepreneurship education programs beneficial as complements to traditional academic curricula, they can also serve to inspire confidence and leadership in students where such character traits may go unrecognized and underutilized. This shift in attitude toward success is critical in helping students stay on track and motivated in the midst of mixed messages about their future opportunities.

Moreover, polls show that students crave this type of learning. The Gallup Organization has found that nearly seven out of 10 youths ages 14 to 19 are interested in becoming entrepreneurs or learning more about entrepreneurship.

That’s good news, because the benefits of entrepreneurship education can reach beyond an individual student’s interest in business. The hands-on, interactive nature of high-quality entrepreneurship curricula holds the capacity to engage students by making learning relevant to their real-world experiences and ambitions. Students learn the basic business skills needed to open and operate a business, but they also learn how to plan and strategize successfully, think critically, and work effectively in teams. Good entrepreneurship programs bring students together to work with one another on real issues, and build potential for a successful career and financial independence.

Middle and high school students, especially those who find themselves struggling academically, all too often complain that school seems irrelevant to both their present and future lives. Entrepreneurship and business education programs can help make learning relevant and fill a critical knowledge gap. The lack of understanding these students have about the workings of the market—and their place in it—systematically denies them opportunities for pursuing their dreams and goals. And without dreams to pursue, young people are left with little reason to invest in education and their own development.

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and Junior Achievement have both sponsored national surveys of attitudes toward, interest in, and knowledge of business and business ownership among teenagers. Young entrepreneurs have also been featured in magazines such as Home Business, Black Enterprise, and Inc., among others. But until recently, there has been very little research on youth entrepreneurship in action.

The lack of understanding many students have about the workings of the market systematically denies them opportunities for pursuing their dreams and goals.

Now the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, with support from the Goldman Sachs Foundation and other donors, has established a partnership with Michael Nakkula, the director of Project IF (Inventing the Future) at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, to conduct an independent, longitudinal educational-outcomes study of its programs.

The study in part seeks to understand how the entrepreneurial skills and attitudes promoted by programs such as the NFTE affect young people, and the connection between those skills and attitudes and larger life goals.

Although the project is ongoing, the current findings reveal that while engaged in the entrepreneurship program, the NFTE students:

  • Increased their engagement in reading on their own, independently from school assignments;
  • Increased their interest in college by 32 percent (while the comparison group’s interest declined by 17 percent over the same period of time);
  • Increased their aspirations for jobs that require more education by 44 percent (while the comparison group’s aspirations increased by only 10 percent);
  • Expressed a 17 percent increase in their interest in work and professional achievement; and
  • Expressed a success orientation, manifested in a 56 percent increase in their “hopes and worries about future success” (while the comparison group increased only 12 percent).

The gain in building students’ commitment to success is especially promising. By raising aspirations, entrepreneurship education can positively orient more young people toward college and career. These findings should be of interest not only to educators, but to business professionals and entrepreneurs as well.

Companies large and small have an important stake in the development of higher ambitions and marketable skills by young people. As voracious consumers of well-prepared workers, businesses share the responsibility for improving the quality of their education. In fact, a unique contribution may be made when companies unleash their people’s entrepreneurial talents to promote youth development.

The Goldman Sachs Foundation has worked effectively with the NFTE on an innovative program in which Goldman Sachs professionals mentor youths in entrepreneurship—both electronically and in person. It’s a great way to leverage the skills and expertise of business professionals while increasing young people’s appetite for success.

The Harvard study shows that by investing in entrepreneurship education programs, funders can open to young people an exciting world of possibilities, and help them develop new confidence, skills, and ambitions along the way.

Stephanie Bell-Rose is the president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, in New York City. Steve Mariotti is the president of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, also in New York City.

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