When Les Jones drives the streets of the Willowbrook neighborhood of South Los Angeles where he runs a Boys & Girls Club, he doesn't see the kind of small businesses he believes are needed to serve as role models for young people.
"Unfortunately, in this community it's either chains, or liquor stores, or check cashing or fast food," Jones said. "Kids can't get an idea that when they grow up, they could create their own positive thing."
He hopes a youth entrepreneurship program to be offered at the Watts/Willowbrook Boys & Girls Club next year will start changing that.
The pilot program, to be funded by a $100,000 federal grant, will teach young people ages 14 to 18 what it takes to turn an idea into a new venture. Leadership training, team-building exercises and mentoring will be included.
"We want to build more self-confidence and have them learn more about leadership and why community is important and what their role would be in the community as they grow up," said Sheneui Weber, a program organizer and head of the Los Angeles Regional Small Business Development Center Network at Long Beach City College.
Details are still being worked out, but Weber hopes the program will be free and run once a week for 12 weeks. Proponents say entrepreneurial training for youths can cut down on dropout rates and give at-risk young people a forum to learn academic and social skills and shape their own futures in a positive way.
Transforming "street smarts into business smarts" is how Steve Mariotti, founder of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, puts it. The onetime business owner and former inner-city teacher founded the nonprofit group in 1987 after he discovered he could motivate his toughest students by teaching them how to run a business. Based in New York, the foundation has an office in Los Angeles and provides curriculum for local high schools.
"Talking to poor kids about making money is one of the first times they get to think about something that's going to directly affect their life," said Amy Rosen, the foundation's chief executive. "They start thinking about opportunity in a different way."
Low-income high school students drop out at a rate six times higher than their high-income peers, she said. Entrepreneurial training can get high-risk students more interested in staying in school because education becomes more relevant to their goals, she said.
But teaching kids about marketing, finance and business plans is difficult if they lack math and writing skills. And kids can be especially wary of programs that make big promises, said Darick Simpson, head of the Long Beach Community Action Partnership and an instructor at an entrepreneurship program at El Camino College. He is expected to be the instructor at the Boys & Girls Club program too.
Still, he said he has succeeded in getting young people interested in entrepreneurship by focusing on their interests in areas such as videography and music.
"They may be gifted as artists or have some other talent that clearly has entrepreneurship substance," Simpson said. "But I would try to encourage them to understand that no matter how talented they are, there will come a point in time it will start to implode if they don't have some formal business structure in place."