How Entrepreneurship Spurs Kids to College

A minority-serving nonprofit uses small-business creation to help likely high school dropouts refocus on their education.

Teen entrepreneurs TJ Hudson and Eric Hawkins started their clothing design business with a hoodie that expressed opposition to youth violence.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Jan. 13, 2014, 12:05 a.m.

At a re­cent sales event in down­town Wash­ing­ton, young people in suits man­euvered to catch the at­ten­tion of likely cus­tom­ers. “Did you know there’s an epi­dem­ic go­ing on? An epi­dem­ic of lost keys!” said one teen­ager, guid­ing his listen­er to­ward a dis­play of wrist­band key chains. Hat de­sign­ers handed out busi­ness cards, and cake bakers ex­plained that, yes, they would de­liv­er. You’d nev­er guess that the con­fid­ent 11th-grade en­tre­pren­eurs had once been con­sidered likely high school dro­pouts.

BUILD, a four-year pro­gram, uses small-busi­ness cre­ation to reen­gage at-risk high school stu­dents in their edu­ca­tion. Par­ti­cipants don’t just write a busi­ness plan; they make and mar­ket products, learn­ing pro­fes­sion­al skills and emo­tion­al ma­tur­ity along the way. Last year, every stu­dent who stayed with BUILD from ninth through 12th grade went on to col­lege. Al­most all alumni that pur­sue post­sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion stay on track to earn­ing their dip­lo­mas.

The non­profit works with school dis­tricts to re­cruit en­ter­ing ninth-graders who meet cer­tain cri­ter­ia for so­cioeco­nom­ic dis­ad­vant­age and aca­dem­ic dis­en­gage­ment — such as eli­gib­il­ity for fed­er­ally sub­sid­ized lunches or a his­tory of tru­ancy is­sues. Stu­dents can opt to par­ti­cip­ate, or be strongly urged to by their high school.

Ninety-four per­cent of BUILD stu­dents come from ra­cial and eth­nic groups un­der­rep­res­en­ted in high­er edu­ca­tion. Al­most three-quar­ters would be the first in their fam­il­ies to go to col­lege. The non­profit cur­rently reaches more than 1,200 stu­dents in the Bay Area, the Dis­trict of Columbia, and Bo­ston, and has served many more since its found­ing in 1999.

D.C. 11th-graders An­dre (TJ) Hud­son and Eric Hawkins star­ted their cloth­ing-design busi­ness with a hood­ie that ex­pressed op­pos­i­tion to youth vi­ol­ence. They used a heat press and trans­fer pa­per to pre­pare their latest product: white hood­ies em­blazoned with the words “Tal­en­ted and Gif­ted.” The new hood­ies, TJ says, spread the mes­sage that you can be smart and fash­ion­able at the same time.

Less than half of fresh­men at TJ and Eric’s high school gradu­ate in four years. Without a high school dip­loma— or with only a high school dip­loma—op­por­tun­ity is hard to come by. Des­pite D.C.’s boom­ing eco­nomy, in some neigh­bor­hoods about one-third of 16- to 24-year-olds are neither in school nor work­ing, ac­cord­ing to the non­profit So­cial Sci­ence Re­search Coun­cil. About 6 mil­lion young people na­tion­wide are “dis­con­nec­ted” from both the edu­ca­tion sys­tem and the work­force. The longer they stay in that limbo, the harder it is to get out.

The non­profit en­cour­ages stu­dents to stay in school bey­ond twelfth grade, re­cog­niz­ing that they’ll be bet­ter equipped for today’s job mar­ket if they go to col­lege. “We make it pretty clear for our stu­dents that the goal isn’t to run their busi­ness in col­lege or to run it after the BUILD pro­gram, but to use it as a vehicle to be­come more col­lege-ready,” says Chris Brown, head of BUILD’s D.C. pro­gram. Two-year, four-year and vo­ca­tion­al de­grees are all en­cour­aged. 

Stu­dents enter the pro­gram through a ninth-grade elect­ive called En­tre­pren­eur­ship 101, taught at a part­ner high school by a teach­er there. At least once a week, stu­dents head to BUILD’s re­gion­al of­fices to work on their ideas. Each team is paired with a vo­lun­teer ment­or from the cor­por­ate world. After ninth grade, BUILD be­comes an after-school pro­gram, and stu­dents can choose wheth­er they want to stay in­volved.

True to its East Pa­lo Alto roots, BUILD bor­rows from the lan­guage and rituals of the tech­no­logy start-up world. At the end of ninth grade, stu­dents pitch their idea to a pan­el of judges, as if they were ex­it­ing an ac­cel­er­at­or pro­gram. In 10th grade, each team meets with a loc­al ven­ture cap­it­al­ist who — if the team had a sol­id plan for re­pay­ing the money — lends a team up to $1,000. Half of BUILD D.C. stu­dents break even with­in a year, and all re­pay their loans with­in two years. Any ex­tra profits stu­dents earn are theirs to keep.

“Few things are go­ing to teach you grit, and force you to learn how to com­mu­nic­ate, and teach you to per­severe and to be more re­source­ful, than ac­tu­ally try­ing to build and scale a busi­ness,” says Evan Burfield, a BUILD sup­port­er and cofounder of 1776, a D.C. start-up in­cub­at­or. All kinds of high schools could be­ne­fit from giv­ing stu­dents a space to work on long-term en­tre­pren­eur­ship pro­jects with ment­ors, he says; he helped set up such a pro­gram at his alma ma­ter, Thomas Jef­fer­son High School for Sci­ence and Tech­no­logy, an elite mag­net school in Vir­gin­ia.

Come seni­or year, most BUILD teams cash out of their busi­nesses and fo­cus on col­lege ap­plic­a­tions. BUILD staff and ment­ors or­gan­ize col­lege vis­its, help stu­dents pre­pare and pay for ad­mis­sions tests, and give them ad­vice on choos­ing a ma­jor. The non­profit also provides aca­dem­ic sup­port ser­vices for stu­dents in all grades, de­livered dif­fer­ently at each re­gion­al site.

Yet while BUILD in­creases the like­li­hood that stu­dents will go to col­lege, it doesn’t dra­mat­ic­ally im­prove grades and test scores. “What we’ve found is that we’re really not mov­ing the needle much, for the amount of re­source we put in­to it,” says Charles Salt­er, pres­id­ent of BUILD. And al­though BUILD seni­ors have high col­lege-go­ing rates, more than half of BUILD fresh­men leave the pro­gram be­fore seni­or year, usu­ally be­cause they move or have oth­er after-school com­mit­ments.

It takes a lot of time, money, and emo­tion­al en­ergy to change the lives of teen­agers, many of whom face heart­break­ing chal­lenges out­side of school. Between ment­ors, tu­tors, ven­ture cap­it­al­ists, and staff, BUILD’s D.C. re­gion has an adult sup­port­er for every two stu­dents. Av­er­aged across all re­gion­al sites and all stu­dents, the pro­gram costs about $6,000 per stu­dent per year. Phil­an­throp­ic dona­tions ac­count for al­most all its fund­ing.

Salt­er be­lieves that BUILD can halve its per-stu­dent costs as it ex­pands. Money-sav­ing changes un­der con­sid­er­a­tion in­clude de-em­phas­iz­ing tu­tor­ing, us­ing high school classrooms as after school work­spaces and adding in­tern­ships. Stu­dents would ar­gu­ably gain more from a suc­cess­ful in­tern­ship ex­per­i­ence than from a few ex­tra points on the SAT, Salt­er says. The school-based in­cub­at­or idea is be­ing pi­loted in D.C. this year.

“What we talk about is the ‘but for BUILD’ mo­ment,” says Peter Mel­len, a CEO and former chair of BUILD’s D.C. ad­vis­ory board. One D.C. stu­dent be­came a moth­er be­fore the end of ninth grade. Now an 11th-grader, she and her team sell bas­kets filled with everything moms need for a new baby. But for BUILD, the young mom likely wouldn’t have stayed in high school.  

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