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A head start on entrepreneurship

Learning to set up a business is helping low-income youths gain a sense of the possible.

July 04, 2007|Cyndia Zwahlen | Special to The Times

Handcrafting wood pens and pencils was just a shop-class project for David Pantoja. Then an entrepreneurship course at the local Boys and Girls Club showed the Oxnard High School junior how his project might help write his ticket to a better future.

Pantoja, 16, founded Dave's Pens last fall. The fledgling home-based business since has sold more than 150 writing instruments made from hand-turned Bahama cherry, amboyna burl and other exotic woods as well as richly colored acrylics.

In April, his efforts were recognized when he was named one of 33 national Young Entrepreneurs of the Year by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship at a New York ceremony, taking home a $750 prize.

In May he won $1,000 and took second place in a business-plan competition held by the foundation's Greater Los Angeles office.

And next week he'll begin a monthlong entrepreneurship program at USC on a scholarship.

His success is an accomplishment for a young man who said he got involved with the wrong crowd in junior high, let his grade-point average drop to a low of 1.5 and was hoping maybe to get into a junior college.

The foundation "is helping me to get a lot farther than I would have without it," said Pantoja, who has doubled his grade-point average and is now aiming for UC Davis or UCLA.

"I ended up stepping into reality and saying, 'I am in high school and I need to do so much better,' " the Oxnard resident said.

That is just the message Steve Mariotti, the entrepreneurship organization's founder, had in mind when he started the program in New York 20 years ago. He believed that entrepreneurship education could empower youths from low-income communities to change their lives.

"It's saying to a kid from a low-income area, 'You can do it. You can succeed.' That's why we are here," said Phyllis Rawley, executive director of the organization's Greater Los Angeles office, which opened this year.

Daniel Uribe, who graduated last month from Torrance West High School, is listening. The 17-year-old used his passion for skateboarding to fuel the creation of Lazer Bearings (, a wholesale and retail venture that will sell high-performance, low-cost ceramic bearings for skateboards.

His business plan, worked out during a course held at his school by the International Social Entrepreneurship Academy in Torrance, won first place and a $1,500 prize at the youth business-plan competition.

He also received a scholarship to attend USC's Exploring Entrepreneurship program this summer. Friday he'll begin Operation Enterprise, an eight-day program at UCLA created for high school students by the American Management Assn.

"This is a way that will allow me to make a career out of skating without jumping down 20 stairs," said Uribe, who found a manufacturer in China as part of his early obsession with seeking out faster, cheaper bearings.

His first order, for 300 eight-bearing sets, is due in late summer. Uribe plans to sell them for about $50 each, about half the standard price for ceramic bearings, he said.

Amber Harden, a 17-year-old who won third place and $750 in the business-plan competition, is planning how she will run her Cougar Office Supplies start-up from Smith College, in Northampton, Mass., where she starts classes this fall.

Newly graduated from Crenshaw High School, Harden is partnering with the student-run Cougar Copy Center at the high school to sell her prepackaged school supplies.

The packs range from a $15 introductory bundle for ninth graders containing basics such as pens, a notebook, a calculator and white-out to smaller, $5- to $10 packets for specific classes, such as chemistry.

"The most important thing NFTE did for me was give me a different way of thinking," said Harden, who sank half her prize money into her business. She buys from an online wholesaler. "It taught me about opportunity recognition."

For many disadvantaged young people, starting a business may be the most attainable path to success, some experts say.

Of course, not every program graduate will go on to become the next Bill Gates. Teens' interests can change quickly, and like adult entrepreneurs, most will find that seed money will remain a hurdle.

Even if they don't go on to own their own business, the life skills they've learned in the student entrepreneur programs can help them be more successful at anything they try, said Tim Blaylock, chief professional officer for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme, which oversees the branch where Pantoja attended the entrepreneurship program.

"What we are really wanting them to say is, 'Hey, I get why school is so important now and ... I think I can become a success in life,' " Blaylock said.

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