Raising entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurial education can help students chart a course for success. Here’s how.

9 min read

Career-Technical Education

Raising entrepreneurs


Entrepreneurial education can be life-changing, particularly for young people struggling with poverty and other oppressive situations, says Steve Mariotti, entrepreneur, former special-education teacher and founder of the nonprofit Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. SmartBrief Education talked with Mariotti about how students can benefit from learning about entrepreneurship and business ownership and how teachers can implement these lessons in their classrooms.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Why is an education about entrepreneurialism important for today’s students? 

Poverty rules the day-to-day lives of millions, making it impossible to plan for the future because they are stuck trying to get the simplest tasks done. It causes immense stress as people struggle with, and worry about, meeting their most immediate needs. Perhaps one of its most damaging impacts is that it robs a person from their ability to save for the future, as explained in “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” In fact, institutional poverty and even some government subsidies prohibit people from starting their own businesses by requiring that they never have more than a small amount of cash in the bank.

Entrepreneurship and ownership education, on the other hand, provide students with paths out of poverty. It teaches them about recognizing opportunity, planning and setting goals, comparative advantage, budgeting and fundraising, and perhaps most importantly, the value of critical thinking, mental visualization and tenacity. Students learn how to develop their own networks of support.

One of my former students, still a close friend, is ‘Jimmy Mac’ McNeal. In the early ‘90s, Jimmy founded Bulldog Bikes, the first African American-owned BMX company, while also managing a very successful BMX career. Despite his many successes, Jimmy later suffered from health issues including diabetes that could have brought his entrepreneurship career down. Instead, his tenacity led him to overcome that health obstacle and launch a new line of athletic shoes called Union Square Shoe Company, aimed at extreme athletes like himself.

Some teachers are skeptical about the value of entrepreneurialism for students. How do we educate educators about this?

I try to let the results speak for themselves. I spent my whole career working with and learning from thousands of teachers, many of whom initially had no interest or faith in entrepreneurship education. For many years, only the most troubled kids with the worst grades would be allowed to work with our program. By the end of the year, they would be the most ambitious, fearless students with clear plans to achieve goals.

Teaching students about entrepreneurship and ownership helps them find their vision, define how they want to world to be, and how they can help make that happen. It also helps them learn how to listen and empathize — key skills, as any entrepreneur will tell you. I think any teacher would support these things.

How can teachers in disadvantaged schools — high poverty, rural or urban areas — help students see their abilities and transform those skills into a successful start-up business? 

In my 30-plus years of working in disadvantaged schools, I have seen two teaching strategies work.

The first one, the internal method, asks the class to write down its hobbies, interests and skills. From that list, they can begin to identify their unique comparative advantage and the makings of a business.

The second method, the external one, helps students focus on understanding the wants and needs of others through tools like questionnaires and focus groups. From there, they begin to hone in on a community need and how to solve it.

How do teachers help students believe in themselves — and in their ability to come up with good ideas, pursue them and recover when things go south?

First, never abandon the Golden Rule. Be kind to your students and treat them with the respect they deserve.

Second, provide constructive feedback in a respectful manner. I gave feedback daily and always listened to the students respond, even when they disagreed with my feedback. It is important to take their ideas seriously.

Next, allow for mistakes. I learned this lesson from the Yankees years ago. Derek Jeter made an error during a game and afterward, a reporter asked Coach Torres why he didn’t yell at Jeter. Torres told the reporter that he knew Jeter was smart, aware of his mistake, and probably feeling pretty bad about it already. Torres knew better than to shake Jeter’s confidence further.

That applies to my next rule: Build up student confidence. I loved to line my classroom walls with positive sayings to help students internalize a positive outlook. I also tried to teach them the power of rewording things: obstacles become opportunities, especially when it comes to business. Maybe your prices are too high, your product quality is too low or your business simply isn’t working. Having the ability to see your setback as a step in success is critical. As Henry Ford said, “failure is a resting place.”

What techniques and teaching tools do you recommend teachers use? How can they engage students who may not “get” it?

Find a point of connection. Listen to what your students care about, rather than forcing them into something that they’re not interested in. If a student loves music, ask them to think about the business aspects of the industry. The important lesson is not that they learn to love entrepreneurship, but that they learn some of the values of entrepreneurship.

For example, the music lover can learn about financial planning by considering the costs required to throw a concert. He or she can learn about setting realistic goals by considering how a singer might develop her voice, audition for a band or record a song. Students who are most opposed to entrepreneurship and resistant to learning about it are usually the same ones that find a connection with starting their own businesses and become excellent executives in the future.

Can you share some of your former student’s success stories? Where are they now? 

The entrepreneurship program I started back in the ‘80s now has over a million graduates. My hope is that they are happy and using some of the concepts in their daily lives, such as fearlessness, alertness to opportunity and thinking out of the box.

One student, for example, is Robert Reffkin. Reffkin learned how to be alert to opportunity in our program and has been honing that skill ever since. Hugely successful, polite, and driven since day one, Reffkin spotted an opportunity to innovate the real estate industry with a tech platform. Now his company, Compass, is valued at $2 billion and has hundreds of brokers around the country.

Another student started a successful trade school in Philadelphia. Many other students are now teachers, and hundreds of others run successful small businesses in their communities. Some of the top entrepreneurs in Israel, Germany, China and India graduated from the program.

Why do you think this program has resonated with them?

I think it’s pretty simple. Being a successful entrepreneur allows a person to meet financial needs, gain recognition in the community, and enjoy space and power to be creative.

How does this program help transform the work lives of young adults?

Entrepreneurship and business ownership programs teach young people to take initiative for themselves. If opportunity recognition — an important part of our program — is critical, then the ability to act on that insight is as vital. Initiative is a skill every successful person has, but it is particularly essential for entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship also teaches students to always be in business for themselves. They may not have structured hours, but they must take responsibility for getting their work done, keeping their doors open, and paying their employees and vendors.

How do schools need to improve their special education programs to support struggling — and often, mislabeled — high school students? 

Improving special education is one of the most important issues of our time, here in the US and around the world.

First, special education is about educating unique learners. I count myself and many of my former students in this group. Poorly run programs marginalize unique learners by excluding them from a path to prosperity and a role in society. In my opinion, our prisons are filled with unique learners — people who didn’t get the help they needed to visualize their own successful futures.

My method has always been to focus on each child and help them understand their own competitive advantage. Every person is interested in something. Every person is good at something. You don’t have to be the best; you only need to find the right time and place to do that one thing. That’s your competitive advantage, something essential to entrepreneurship education.

In places like Switzerland, one in three children enter an apprenticeship program to learn a specific skill, something that interests them and for which they show some aptitude. These students later become entrepreneurs by offering that skill — such as plumbing or welding — in the marketplace.

In my experience, unique learners are often best suited for business ownership rather than becoming an employee. Unfortunately, our current educational system does not afford unique learners the opportunity to develop those skills or find their own unique paths.

Kanoe Namahoe is the editorial director of SmartBrief Education and Leadership.

Steve Mariotti is an entrepreneur, author and former special-education teacher. He also founded and served as president of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a nonprofit organization established to teach entrepreneurship to disadvantaged youth. Mariotti’s new memoir Goodbye Homeboy: How My Students Drove Me Crazy and Inspired a Movement talks about entrepreneurial creativity can help people create pathways out of poverty.


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