A “NFTE” Way to Start a Career: Entrepreneurial training program takes hold in MA

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  With the ever-increasing focus on math and technology skills, students are being better prepared for the “real world” than ever before. And yet, even with new high-stakes tests that are nominally intended to prepare them for college and career, many emerge from school with no real idea of what they want to do and where they want to apply their skills.

As a result, at least 74 million youth are unemployed globally and, in the next 20 years, there will be at least 600 million more young people looking for work. At the same time, at least one in three employers in the U.S. is looking for new hires with some sort of entrepreneurial experience. In nationwide polls, most students say they want to run their own businesses and define their own success.

Since 1987, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (www.nfte.com) has been engaging high school students across the country, (and now the world), and encouraging them to put their academic skills to practical use while developing an entrepreneurial mindset. NFTE teaches students how to come up with an idea and start their own business. In this way, the program fosters job creators instead of just job consumers.

“NFTE’s call to action is to equip youth with an entrepreneurial mindset,” explains NFTE New England Manager of Programs Jennifer Green, citing “the skills and behaviors needed to approach the world with an innovator’s eye and a founder’s grit.” Among these, she suggests, are comfort with risk, innovation, collaboration, and future orientation, all of which are integral to the NFTE curriculum.

In addition to working with individual students, schools, and districts, NFTE also offers programs regionally, nationally, and globally, through classrooms, summer camps, and online. On Wednesday, March 16th, NFTE will host its 10th annual NFTE New England Youth Entrepreneurship Conference at Babson College in Wellesley. At this flagship event, over 500 NFTE students and alumni will gather to discuss and build upon their ideas and receive coaching from the hundreds of corporate and entrepreneurial volunteers. They will also hear from NFTE graduates who have found success and, to use a term from the NFTE curriculum, are “owning” their futures. For the 10th anniversary Conference, NFTE has asked Tracy and Dani Noonan - co-founders of a local company Wicked Good Cupcakes – to speak. After being featured on the hit entrepreneurial TV show “Shark Tank,” the mother and daughter found funding and has been a sweet smash ever since. It is hoped that the Noonan’s inspiring story will encourage others to follow in their footsteps.

“NFTE continues to prove that teaching entrepreneurial skills is life-changing for youth,” Green observes, “and the key to a peaceful, profitable, and advancing global future.”

NFTE was founded by successful entrepreneur Steve Mariotti after a career change that took him from working with CEOs of businesses to working with special education students in New York City. In an effort to motivate his students, Mariotti began to share his own lessons of overcoming obstacles and struggle to succeed. Using real money to demonstrate abstract math concepts, Mariotti developed a hands-on program that eventually became NFTE. Since then, his program has supported over 600,000 students in some of the most underprivileged communities around the world.

“Here at NFTE New England we have thriving programs at 13 high schools,” Green says, listing such cooperative communities as Boston, Chelsea, Lawrence, Lowell, and New Bedford. “We serve nearly 1,000 students annually and have reached over 16,000 students since inception.” Such engagement and success has led the MA Department of Education to ask NFTE to represent at a recent state-wide conference, Green notes, observing how much the program has grown thanks to word-of-mouth advertising from satisfied students, teachers, administrators, parents, and business owners. 

“Chelsea High became involved when we heard about the program at a Mass Business Ed conference,” recalls Catherine Doherty, an NFTE teacher at Chelsea High School. “We…realized the program would be beneficial to our students and put it into the program of studies for the year after.

Though she admits to having not been initially thrilled to give up a week of summer vacation to take the NFTE training at Babson, Doherty says that, “after the first 20 minutes we were hooked. We knew our students would love the activities since they were all hands-on and it would help them to understand the concepts to be learned. The training also gave us credibility with our students since we also had to create and present a business plan for our business.”

When asked to list the many benefits of partnering with NFTE, Doherty mentions how the program “gives our students an identity of being part of a bigger picture” and how the curriculum provides students “major experience in problem solving and also involves such vital and transferable academic, business and life elements as research, data collection, fiscal awareness and social responsibility. 

“It also pushes them to present themselves to adults,” Doherty observes, noting how important the skill of networking can be to work and to life. “The NFTE program lets students choose their own path to personal growth and adaptablity.”

Another MA district where NFTE has had a great deal of positive impact is Lowell. In fact, according to a letter from Lowell High School Discipline and Operations Specialist Roxanne Howe (who acts as a liaison between the school and NFTE), Lowell was the only NFTE program to produce a regional winner for the NFTE entrepreneurial competition in its first year! This was thanks to Iraqi immigrant Rafal Thaher, a Lowell student who came up with an idea for a henna tattooing company that eventually became a successful business called RfullaHenna. Her business plan rose to the top of the region out of a field of over 800. In 2014, Rafal competed for NFTE’s national prize of $25,000 as part of the NFTE Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge in Silicon Valley, CA.

As NFTE’s partnership with the Lowell public schools has already borne such impressive fruit, Rowe also mentions that she hopes to expand the program so that more students can be engaged and encouraged to pursue their dreams and use their skills. The program has more than doubled in size in just three years.

“We couldn’t be more grateful for their support,” Rowe says of NFTE, recalling how her students went on a NFTE-sponsored trip to New York where they learned about economics by being given actual money to buy and sell items in the historic Wholesale District. “Many of the students made their very first profit during this class activity, inspiring in them a sense of self-generated revenue and self-sufficiency.”

Nationally, NFTE students enjoy a higher college enrolment rate (90% compared to the national average of 60%) and post-graduate employment rate (88% versus 69%) and earn an additional 58% more in average base salary. They are also twice as likely as the general population to start their own businesses.

In addition to developing entrepreneurial skills, NFTE students work on employability and general financial skills that will help them even if they end up working for other people. By thinking like a CEO, students can better assess what a potential employer might want from them and how to compete and promote themselves in what is an ever-more-competitive job market. They also learn how to read and design a financial statement, how to deal with fixed and variable costs and analysis and how to handle financial ratios.

“By activating the entrepreneurial mindset in young people,” Green suggests, “we can literally change the landscape of the future…putting young people in control of their futures and equipping them to create new jobs, for themselves and others, and to make the world a better place.”