Patricia Granata Eisner, executive director of Baltimore… (Monica Lopossay for The…)
Patricia Granata Eisner strives to turn Baltimore's neediest kids into business owners.
As executive officer of the Baltimore office of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, she introduces low-income kids to the world of business plans, spreadsheets and returns on investments. Through school classes or business boot camps, NFTE helps kids come up with an idea, write a business plan and then eventually open that business.
The kids, ages 11 to 18, can then enter their business plan in a national competition against other NFTE chapters. The program also teaches business etiquette and encourages the kids to seek out role models such as Eddie C. Brown, founder and owner of Baltimore asset management firm Brown Capital Management.
The hope is that they will one day be able to control their own economic well-being. The program has worked with 7,000 kids since being established in 2003.
As the country celebrates National Entrepreneurship Week, which began Saturday, Granata Eisner talks about why kids should learn about business and the importance of entrepreneurship to the American economy.
Question: Why teach low-income kids entrepreneurial skills?
Answer: Entrepreneurship is really their only way out — starting their own businesses, getting economic and financial stability, becoming their own boss. Through entrepreneurship, they define their own path for life and will be able to build capital on their own. They can take basic street sense and business sense and change it into something good that will benefit them.
Q: Do you encourage them to go to college as well as start businesses?
A: Oh, yes. They start in a class they take between sixth and 12th grade. Generally, they come up with a business idea and write a business plan. They make long-term and short-term goals. Going to college and graduate school, or getting an MBA eventually, is part of those goals. We do support them as they apply to college. We have a lot of alumni who are always coming back to mentor the other kids.
Q: What are some of the most unusual businesses you've seen kids start over the years?
A: We had a [local] student who competed in New York for $10,000. When he was little, he had a ton of allergies to soaps and fragrances and things. His mom made a bunch of organic stuff, air fresheners made of spice and baking soda so he wouldn't be allergic. He took it and made it into his own business, "Ezeey Breeze Air Fresheners." His motto was: Why be wheezy when you can be Ezeey Breezy? [The student didn't win the competition, but he still sells his products out of Baltimore.]
Q: How many of the kids continue on with their entrepreneurship activities as adults?
A: We just started in Baltimore in 2003. So right now the kids I have been working with are in college. Some of them have changed their ideas after going to school. Others are using their business to make money for college. We tell them they have to make college their priority, but they will also do what they can to make extra money.
Nationally, NFTE has been around since 1987. They have one person who is at Goldman Sachs who in the '80s had a DJ business when he was in the New York program. Now he is on the national board of NFTE.
Q: At your upcoming fundraiser this week, you'll be discussing "invisible capital." What do you mean by that?
A: Say my dad works at Merrill Lynch and your dad works at Goldman Sachs. My dad will say, "Can you take my daughter and help her get an internship?" They have that invisible network. Kids from our community may not have that.
But what do they have? Eddie Brown, who is a successful businessman in our community, may go to church with some of our kids. What is stopping our children from meeting him and asking him about business? What ways can our children find capital within the networks that they have?
Q: What else are they learning in the program?
A: They're learning a lot of math. It is a pretty intense business plan they are writing. A 20-page PowerPoint presentation where they're learning return on investment and other financial terms. It's really a business plan that a businessman might review in their everyday work. They're also learning how to look people in the eye and firmly shake your hand. We also do "dress for success" and business etiquette.
Q: How hard has it been for entrepreneurs to get financing during the economic downturn and for you to raise money for NFTE?
A: We have to be creative. But we have supporters that have been with us for a long time. And Baltimore City schools have been supportive. Once you spend a day in the classroom with the kids, you can't give up. You find the money.
Q: Why is entrepreneurship important to this country?
A: There aren't jobs being created for you in this economy. You have to create and start your own. We have very, very smart kids. They start making money and they're their own boss and they start working harder than they ever have.
This country is built on entrepreneurs who took risks.
Q: Where do the kids get the money for the business?
A: We give every student $50 in seed capital. We invest in them. That $50 won't get you far. [But] they turn it into $200 selling other stuff. Then they can invest that in the business.