Two weeks ago I was asked to be part of a judging panel for a business plan competition at George Washington University.

Each of the teams was sharp and impeccably dressed. Each member confidently addressed the audience stating his or her role in marketing, finance or operations. The presentations were perfectly orchestrated with persuasive analytical frameworks: market research, P&L statements and, in some cases, complete new product prototypes. The teams had clearly worked extremely hard and were passionate about their ideas. They were honest in their assumptions and even alluded to how they overcame struggles in getting the various team personalities to leverage their differences toward a common goal.

I have taught undergrad, MBA and executive level courses in Miami and Mexico but these groups were especially impressive… And unexpected.

These presenters were not well-heeled MBA students, bright undergrads or even young professionals. These groups were 9th grade students from some of the most problem-plagued areas in Washington DC. These kids came from high schools where only 50% of the students even graduate. And far from scoring in the top 10% on achievement tests, these students were selected due to their high risk of drop-out – standardized scores in the Basic levels, low family incomes, and low school attendance.

These students were part of Build ( who’s mission is:

To use entrepreneurship to excite and propel disengaged, low-income students through high school to college success.

This four-year high school program begins as a ninth-grade elective culminating in a business plan competition. In 10th grade, the students transition to an after school activity where they launch their businesses with some seed funding (about $200) in incubators with an assigned advisor. Junior and senior years, the program adds college prep activities such as taking the SAT/ACT and applying to colleges.

The results are impressive. 100% of BUILD students thus far (over 800 students in total) have completed the program and gone on to study at college. 80% of these kids are the first in their families to ever attend college. And I could see the transformation even as I watched those business plan presentations. These kids got why school mattered, and had a clear sightline to a successful future.

But most of all, it was clear that each teen had a real sense of accomplishment, pride and empowerment. In the feedback session we talked a lot about the inherent failures in entrepreneurship, how most businesses fail. But we talked about the learning in those “failures” and how that process or trial and error would always lead to success. Watching these BUILD students I knew that each of them had already hit many “failures” in their young lives. But with tenacity, optimism and hard work they were charging ahead.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay area, Washington DC or Boston, consider giving your time to BUILD. For some activities you can even help out remotely. Click here for more information.

About the Author(s)

Jeanne Rossomme headshot

Jeanne uses her 20 years of marketing know-how to help small business owners reach their goals. Before becoming an entrepreneur, she held a variety of marketing positions with DuPont and General Electric. Jeanne regularly hosts online webinars and workshops in both English and Spanish.

President, RoadMap Marketing
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