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Grade-schoolers profit from learning business, execs say

'Kiddie MBA' programs build real-world skills and esteem, but what about future artists?

February 19, 2007|Rachel Konrad | The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Like any ambitious entrepreneur, Amy Lee has created a global marketing plan, approved the product manufacturing specifications and memorized a business pitch to venture capitalists.

"I'm nervous, but I think I can get people to invest," said the president and founder of Friends Forever Bracelet Inc., a jewelry retailer that plans a big Internet advertising campaign in China.

After a brief conversation with investors, she walked away with $32 in fake currency -- no treasure for a Silicon Valley executive but a proud fortune for an 11-year-old girl.

Amy, a fifth-grader at Jean Parker Elementary School in San Francisco, is enrolled in a monthlong crash course in business fundamentals. The pupils learn words such as "revenue" and "prototype," meet venture capitalists and executives, and even tour the offices of the city's Financial District.

At the end of the month, they all sell their bracelets to fourth-graders. Whichever team makes the most make-believe "BizBucks" wins the contest, and everyone celebrates with a party sponsored by San Francisco-based software company Salesforce.com Inc. and the BizWorld Foundation, a nonprofit founded by a local venture capitalist.

Advocates say the initiative gets youngsters thinking about entrepreneurship, finance, marketing and other real-world jobs, expanding their options beyond firefighter, veterinarian and other common fifth-grade career picks. Proponents want every school in America to teach business basics.

"Business curriculum engages students in learning much more than the basic '2-plus-2-is-4' system, and it gives them a way to connect to their education," said Gerald Richards, head of the Bay Area office of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship.

The group sponsors business-school-style programs for students ages 11 through 18 in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and other cities.

But critics say these "kiddie MBA" programs -- often sponsored by corporations -- are thinly veiled advertisements that undercut the nonprofit motive of public education. They worry that dividing students into teams, then appointing one child president and giving lesser roles to others, needlessly exposes youngsters to the harsh realities of the corporate world.

In a nation desperate for more rank-and-file scientists and engineers, emphasizing business ownership might send the wrong message to students who have no desire to start a company, said Ikhlaq Sidhu, who runs the Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at UC Berkeley.

At Jean Parker, a crowded school on the edge of San Francisco's Chinatown, pupils meet once a week for a couple of hours with businesspeople such as Bobby Napiltonia, a Salesforce.com senior vice president. This month he pretended to be a venture capitalist for Amy Lee and other fifth-graders. He had to make a pitch of his own when launching his Internet start-up before joining Salesforce.

"One of the kids was actually sweating, he was so nervous when he was pitching me. I thought, 'Hey, I know that feeling!' " Napiltonia said. "The best part of this is that they are learning that in the real world, they can do whatever they want, as long as they can get investors to get on board. It's empowering."

The idea behind the program at Jean Parker came in 1993, when the 8-year-old daughter of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper asked him to describe his job. At a loss to explain entrepreneurship to a third-grader, Draper used his daughter's love of friendship bracelets to create a mock company for her and her classmates.

Draper -- founder and managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, which has backed start-ups such as Skype, Overture and Hotmail -- established the BizWorld Foundation in 1997.

Jean Parker teacher Celia Magtoto says the program gets her 30 fifth-graders thinking about careers far different from those of their parents, mostly first-generation Asian immigrants in blue-collar jobs.

Magtoto was initially concerned that the program could marginalize aspiring musicians, painters and other children interested in noncorporate careers. But she realized that her pupils -- who take music, art and other classes -- rarely glimpse the business world.

The program turns some of her shyest wallflowers into go-getters.

"I see kids who normally wouldn't talk to their peers suddenly pitching their company to adults they don't even know. That's great for self-esteem," Magtoto said. "And it's great for them to see that there are adults out there who really care and really listen to them."

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