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Export Experts

High school students, learning the nuances of international business using the Internet, get ready to take on the world.

March 28, 2001|DOUG SMITH | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The partnership formed this year between IBM and the Canadian biotech firm MDS Proteomics may not have been big news. The announcement in January didn't make the Los Angeles Times.

But the little business deal with big implications for protein research didn't slip the notice of Nicole Toussant, a 10th-grader at King/Drew Medical Magnet High School. She found it on the Internet and used it for a class presentation, complete with photos of the Toronto firm's headquarters and stories from the financial media.

Toussant is one of about 20 King/Drew students who stay an extra period after school to study the import-export business online, and learn to launch businesses of their own.

Four of them, for example, are planning to export clothing, shoes and body products. They say they'll handle only the "hippest" stuff and are targeting the practically unlimited market of "anyone who wants to look good and smell good at an affordable price."

The students receive high school credit for the class, and, if they stick with it through the two-year curriculum, they have a chance of selling some American products to overseas buyers.

The World Business Exchange Global Internet Trade Course is the creation of its instructor, Alfonso Webb, and Los Angeles businessman Roosevelt Roby.

Webb was a technology and math teacher at Locke High School in South Los Angeles when he read about Roby's Internet-based company, which provides international trade leads. He asked Roby to address his students.

"The kids loved him," Webb said.

Webb said he saw the potential for a course that would help students bridge the transition from study to career. Roby applauded the idea.

"The idea of LAX expanding, and also the harbor, Alameda Corridor," Roby said. "All this is coming right here in our kids' laps. It's important they understand how to embrace this."

Holing up in a hotel for several weekends, Webb and other teachers designed a course around Roby's Web site, which disseminates U.S. Commerce Department information to international traders who subscribe.

As part of the course, students get free access to the Web site. The idea is that they will learn how to identify buyers for American products and then locate the supplier.

The Los Angeles Unified School District approved the class for credit as a business elective.

In the first year, students work on the basics of international trade, learning about the interdependence of countries and how politics can affect business. They also practice making presentations.

In the second year, they learn the types of business structures, how to do a market analysis and how to get an international letter of credit. Then they create their own company identities and start mining the World Business Exchange for customers.

Any student who completed a sale would receive a middleman fee. The money would go into the school budget. So far, Webb conceded, the profits remain theoretical--but the possibility is a great motivator.

"When I start mentioning how much money and goods travel up the Alameda Corridor and how much can be made importing as well as exporting, they can't wait to get started," he said.

Roby has formed a nonprofit foundation, Researched Entrepreneurial Ideas Specialists, to market the curriculum to other schools. Besides King/Drew, where Webb transferred in 1998, the program is used at Locke, Jordan High School, the Mid-City Magnet High School and at Central Juvenile Hall. It is being added at Crenshaw High School.

Webb tries to infuse the classroom work with real-life experience. This semester, he took his students to Los Angeles Harbor to explore the mechanics of international trade.

He is also seeking sponsors for several of the students to accompany his mother-in-law, a doctor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, on her annual medical mission to the villages of Nigeria. They would go along as a pharmaceutical trade mission to gain experience in how to gauge a foreign market and form relationships with trading partners from different cultures.

Because King/Drew students generally specialize in medicine, the emphasis in Webb's class is on markets for medical supplies.

Nonetheless, some of the children follow their own interests in other directions.

At a recent session, the four future apparel magnates unveiled their new company, called 3A+B Dynasty. That's a condensation of their first names: Antoinette Bowie, Ashley Brumfield, Alisha Brown and Bruce Jackson.

With their classmates gathered around their computer, the four students took turns narrating a slick business plan, detailing everything from their goal of marketing in North America and Central America to the nuances of the ideal workplace.

"We don't want to work in some broken-down warehouse," one said. "We don't want someone with long, long nails trying to deal with our customers," said the next. "We want to be in a nice environment," a third added.

"Who's going to be president?" Webb asked.

"We're all bossy," Brown said. "One of us is going to have to give in."

When they started the class, these students were too shy to make such a presentation, Webb said.

"Now they're our stars."

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