Wise: National Foundation For Teaching Entrepreneurship

What would you do if you were an ineffective teacher of inner-city kids, students much like the teenagers who had recently mugged you for just a few dollars?

If you were Steve Mariotti, you’d soon be giving them money to create small businesses and turn their lives around.

We live in a knowledge economy, in which it’s more and more necessary to get education beyond high school just to have a shot at a decent job. Despite that, too many students are not even making it through high school. In 2008, the state of California released figures saying that one in three students in the Los Angeles public school system never completed high school. For blacks, the figure was 42 percent. High school graduation rates were increasing by 9 percent, dropout rates by more than 80 percent.

The situation was much the same in 1981 when Steve Mariotti began to teach at New York’s Boys and Girls High School, an inner-city school populated by low-income, at-risk students. Mariotti entered teaching and asked for such a tough assignment in an effort to overcome the fears he had developed after being mugged. He had previously been in business at Ford Motor Company and, after that, had operated his own import-export business.

Mariotti’s educational debut was far from auspicious. He was teaching nearly sixty students, twenty of whom lacked chairs and textbooks. He was on the students’ turf, which they felt gave them the right to bar him from his classroom, disregard what he was teaching when they did let him in, and carry on rituals like setting each other’s clothes on fire.

They were bored out of their minds. Mariotti had not earned their respect, and they felt he had nothing to teach them. Who needs to know math and English? To those students, what Mariotti was offering wasn’t relevant.

This all changed when he began to teach these same students about starting their own businesses. Suddenly, reading was a window revealing opportunity, and grammar and punctuation became useful when students had to write a business plan. Financial return-on-investment? A key business concept that they wouldn’t understand without math and percentages.

Suddenly, what Mariotti was teaching had mass appeal—even to students given an ultimatum to take Mariotti’s course on entrepreneurship or be kicked out of school. Take it—and succeed—they did.

In 1987, Mariotti used his experience teaching business concepts to inner-city students to help found the nonprofit National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE; pronounced “nifty.” The organization has retained its initials but recently became known as the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship). Its mission: to promote entrepreneurial literacy to highly at-risk and disadvantaged youth in inner cities to help them start their own businesses.

Big Picture Design

But NFTE was actually something more. To achieve entrepreneurial literacy, a student had to excel at bedrock academic skills. Motivating students to acquire those skills required entrepreneurial literacy. The situation was similar to M. C. Escher’s famous 1948 lithograph Drawing Hands, depicting a right hand sketching a left hand, which is sketching the very same right hand. It is impossible to tell which comes first or has priority.

Mariotti stole shamelessly from his knowledge and experience in business and as an entrepreneur, using these “right-hand” ideas to draw a foundation for what he was teaching. This was a highly innovative way to motivate students, especially students whom the system might otherwise have labeled hopeless, remedial, or just too much trouble to teach.

But the “left hand” of traditional education was drawing, too. Whereas entrepreneurship is typically a course taught in business schools to college students, Mariotti had to present business concepts in a powerful, accurate, and applicable way using high school students’ more limited academic repertoire.

Traditional educators wouldn’t recognize his approach to instruction because of the way it was founded on teaching business. Business educators wouldn’t recognize it either, because it was also teaching reading, math, and other high school subjects. Mariotti borrowed liberally from each side to enhance the other. In this way, he was practicing double Big Picture Design.

When Mariotti wasteaching entrepreneurship in high school, he held all the cards. He knew about business, he had educational objectives he wanted to achieve, and he was at the front of the classroom making it all work. In founding NFTE, however, he knew he could have an impact beyond his students. This required design of a larger system.

Education, like any other industry, has a “value chain” turning inputs into outputs. Among the most important inputs for NFTE was a curriculum. Mariotti took great care to design this, making sure all the topics he wanted to cover in both business and academics were included and that they built upon each other in an appropriate sequence.

In the beginning, NFTE custom designed curricula, for instance creating one variation on the curriculum for an inmate program at Rikers Island jail and a slightly different curriculum to support other institutions. Eventually, however, to offer the NFTE program as widely as possible, such custom offerings were eliminated in favor of a few standard curriculum designs. These can be used within a school or as part of an extracurricular program; they can occupy a single semester or last an entire year; and they can be used with children as young as middle-school age, through high school, or even beyond.

The educational value chain also depended on teachers being able to effectively deliver the curriculum. It was one thing for a teacher to know how to teach math, reading, or writing, and another altogether to understand business in enough detail to turn out real student-entrepreneurs after they had completed the program. To bridge the gap, NFTE designed intensive training programs. Today, training is offered as part of NFTE-University, which offers a four-day entrepreneurship training program in partnership with leading universities in the United States and Europe.

Making It Appropriate

The National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship makes education sneaky by confronting students who might not “want” to learn math or better English skills with situations in which they must learn them if they want to succeed. And they do want to succeed.

Still, learning in the classroom goes only so far, especially for students trying to learn to be successful in business when they have no role models or other relevant experiences to lean on. This is where hands-on learning becomes so effective.

For instance, a topic that NFTE stresses early is “Opportunity Recognition.” The trading game, which Mariotti first used in high school, furnishes students with inexpensive items from a Dollar Store. Students attempt to buy and sell, haggling over price, learning the critical difference between having an item for sale and having an item that is attractive in the marketplace. The game naturally leads to a conversation about business ideas that might fly where students live and how to make those genuine, attractive opportunities. It also allows students to understand what they see when they take a field trip to a wholesale district where the same “game” is being played—but for keeps.

Nothing drives home the idea of entrepreneurship like making money. But after his students had come up with a business idea, written a business plan, filled out forms, and registered their business, what more could Mariotti do? He staked them working capital to get their businesses off the ground.

Making It Stick

NFTE is changing lives. It has been studied by researchers at Harvard University, Brandeis University, and the David H. Koch Foundation. Students in New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., and California have been evaluated.

And the results? When NFTE students began their training, they were less likely than a comparison group (selected to have stronger academic interest) to want to go to college. By the end of their NFTE experience, the percentage of NFTE students expressing a desire to go to college had doubled, pulling them ahead of the comparison group. In fact, 70 percent of nearly one thousand NFTE alums in one study had gone on to college or other postsecondary programs. Students also developed stronger habits of independent reading, again overtaking the others.

Similarly, their NFTE experience began to change students’ aspirations. As a result of their involvement, the NFTE group strived to obtain jobs requiring significantly more education than when they began the program. They were aiming higher.

NFTE students grew emotionally, too. They began to believe that control of their lives lay within themselves—something quite different from wondering if you will make it to your twentieth birthday and believing that any success you might have is caused by luck or other circumstances outside your control. In the same way, NFTE students showed more initiative and more often took on responsibilities demonstrating their leadership.

And what about the long-term effects after the program was over? A study followed 250 young adults in New York City who had participated in NFTE. Three-fourths of them saw entrepreneurship as a realistic way out of poverty, and more than one-third had started businesses of their own. Nearly everyone in the group felt that NFTE had prepared them for business.

In a fascinating book called Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh, then a student, describes how he became accepted by a gang and its leader in Chicago’s South Side. Over a period of nearly a decade, he documented the economic customs and behavior of dozens of people in that inner-city community in considerable detail. Most worked by “hustling.” This does not necessarily mean doing anything criminal, though there was certainly some of that, but things like fixing a car on a rundown street in exchange for some broken appliances that they might later resell—and paying “rent” to the local gang for that privilege.

This economic network of off-the-books activity reached everywhere within the large neighborhood that Venkatesh observed and involved grandmothers, unwed moms, clergy, and social service providers. Everyone. Though many felt stress associated with what they were doing—hustling means uncertain income, danger if you encroach on someone else’s business “turf,” and being subject to the whims of local gang leaders—they also felt like there was little recourse. The situation in Chicago gives a pretty good idea of what life is like in other tough, urban settings.

All of which makes it more amazing that NFTE students and graduates could start legitimate businesses and pay themselves a salary each month.

Making It Bigger

Mariotti knew from the beginning that NFTE was a diamond, a gem with great value. But NFTE was also a sword, sharp and hard enough to cut through the limiting beliefs in people’s heads and the obstacles in their path. The world needs more swords like this one.

To reach more students, Mariotti had transplanted the teaching of entrepreneurship from the school where he had been teaching to NFTE. To reach even more students, he needed to entrust his diamond to others.

When NFTE began, it taught entrepreneurship only in the New York City area. In the 1990s, it began offering programs outside New York through branch offices that it operates. Today it has eleven offices scattered around metropolitan areas throughout the United States. But to fuel its growth even more, NFTE began licensing its programs to a group of select partners.

The National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship has six partners in the United States and ten more overseas. Partners include school systems, well-established nonprofit organizations, and government agencies. Partners make commitments to:

  • Find at least five low-income schools in their area that agree to incorporate NFTE into their teaching
  • Fund and staff the effort for at least two years
  • Offer programs that effectively deliver NFTE content and provide a “NFTE experience”
  • Work with students from low-income communities
  • Use entrepreneurship as a means to promote education

E CITY is a typical NFTE partner. It is a Cleveland-based nonprofit dedicated to “empower[ing] urban youth to be responsible for their own economic future . . . by teaching and modeling entrepreneurship and life skills.” E CITY has taught the NFTE curriculum in more than twenty-five middle and high schools, in most more than once. The students participating in the program are nominated by their schools. Programs may be offered during school hours or after school, last two to four months, and are paid for by the schools. E CITY is reaching out to other schools and community-based organizations to provide opportunities to other students.

NFTE helps its partners plan and launch their programs. Of course, NFTE shares its diamonds with its partners by providing its award-winning curriculum, training teachers in NFTE-University, and supporting them afterward.

To date, NFTE has taught nearly 280,000 students. It has certified more than 3,500 teachers capable of delivering its programs, more than 1,000 of whom are now doing so. These men and women promise to expand NFTE’s reach in the future even more.

But Mariotti and NFTE understand that there are ripple effects beyond what takes place in a NFTE classroom. Every student who completes the curriculum has made an emphatic, affirmative statement. She has mastered rigorous material. His experience may lead to a college education, providing a path out of poverty. Or she may start a business and hire others. But more than that, NFTE graduates are someone to look up to—by their brothers and sisters, their aunts and uncles, their friends, and even their enemies. “If they can do it, if they can wield the sword to slash through mental barriers and cut down physical obstacles,” they may ask, “why can’t I?”

Higher AIMS Around the World

Often, when the time is right, a powerful idea suddenly “shows up” somewhere as if by some mysterious force. Although it has no formal link to NFTE, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) illustrates this concept.

Like inner-city children in the United States whose educational opportunities often appear limited, even the most talented African students often find it difficult to receive advanced education for lack of money, lack of opportunities, and other deficiencies. This handicaps the distressed continent’s efforts in addressing poverty, managing its land and water, and providing affordable, clean energy.

Then along came University of Cambridge scientist Neil Turok, who founded AIMS—the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences—a graduate-level program for students who otherwise never would have received a graduate education. Focusing on math, science, and computer modeling, the program aims to develop a cadre of highly trained scientists capable of addressing Africa’s critical needs as well as making fundamental contributions to research on par with scientists anywhere in the world.

As Turok explains, the pent-up intellectual energy among Africans that, when it is released, the next Einstein can—and should—come from Africa. As a Rwandan student in AIMS said, “Poverty is the only challenge we face in becoming African Einsteins. Otherwise we have everything else needed to become so.”

Such a proclamation would make Steve Mariotti proud.


PLUS stay updated with news and tips from my latest book, Becoming a Social Entrepreneur: Starting Out, Scaling Up, Staying True, which explores lessons learned from more than 100 social entrepreneurs. 
Learn how to create social impact in these trying times.