Lighting a spark in the young

Sylvia Watts McKinney (right), NFTE Philadelphia chief, with Valerie Nieves and Drew Martin. The two made it to the semifinals of a national competition. RON TARVER / Staff
Sylvia Watts McKinney (right), NFTE Philadelphia chief, with Valerie Nieves and Drew Martin. The two made it to the semifinals of a national competition. RON TARVER / Staff

Nationwide nonprofit with a local branch aims to show students they can succeed in business, too.

Posted: November 18, 2013

The guests will dine on crabcake, dumplings, salad dressed with champagne vinaigrette, and braised short ribs topped with jumbo shrimp.

At the $200-a-head affair Thursday at Vie in Center City, a 41-year-old Main Line entrepreneur who invested his bar mitzvah money in a West Philadelphia apartment building and now heads the largest private student-housing company in the country will be honored.

But in reality, the fifth annual gala for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship Philadelphia is not about David J. Adelman, president and CEO of Campus Apartments. It's about the future viability of a program that has tried to ignite an entrepreneurial fire in more than 4,000 middle-school and high school students in Philadelphia, Camden, and portions of Delaware during the last six years.

Area corporate executives have asserted that the work of NFTE Philadelphia has a direct bearing on the regional economy.

"We're not in an economic environment that's going to sustain itself purely on a few large companies," said Stephen Zarrilli, president and CEO of Safeguard Scientifics and cochair of NFTE Philadelphia. "This community as a whole will flourish if we can continually innovate and think about how to build new businesses."

But in low-income neighborhoods, unemployment is on greater display than career inventiveness, leaving young people with few entrepreneurial mentors, said Steve Mariotti, who founded the nonprofit NFTE in New York in 1987.

"Low-income children are not given opportunities for entrepreneurship; they're given opportunities to be workers," Mariotti said in a recent interview.

The former entrepreneur and South Bronx high school teacher now oversees an organization with a presence in 18 states, 10 countries, and the District of Columbia.

Though Philadelphia was one of NFTE's first outreach cities, it did not get its own program office until 2007. Located on Temple University's campus, it is the youngest of 11 U.S. NFTE offices.

Executive director Sylvia Watts McKinney, a native of Columbia, S.C., with a master's degree in city planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has extended NFTE Philadelphia's reach to nearly 20 public and charter schools. Trained educators follow a prescribed curriculum, guide students through business-plan competitions, and host inspirational classroom visits by the likes of Adelman and others with stories of entrepreneurial ideas and perseverance.

In an interview, McKinney was emotional as she described landing a job with an organization whose mission matched her belief that society has an obligation to mentor those without role models.

"One needs to have someone who comes along and flips the switch - that's what changes your life," McKinney said, tears spilling from her eyes. "Your destiny should not be because of the environment you grew up in."

That's a philosophy shared by Peter Boni, who in 2006 was the new CEO at Safeguard, a Wayne-based support company for technology and health-care businesses that was recovering from the punishing effects of the tech bubble's burst.

Boni wanted to resume the company's suspended philanthropic work, but with more efficacy. He attended a NFTE gala in Washington that year and was instantly hooked.

Aghast that the high school dropout rate in Philadelphia was about 50 percent, Boni committed to establishing an NFTE office here. He recruited Internet Capital Group to cofound and cofund it with Safeguard, from which Boni retired in May.

He and Doug Alexander, now president of ICG, raised more than $1 million to get NFTE Philadelphia open and hired McKinney, who works with an annual budget of $600,000 - less than $500 per student.

She and the local office were welcome support for Carolyn Monson, then a business teacher at Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School in North Philadelphia, where she had been teaching the NFTE curriculum since 1988.

"It just changes their perspective on life," Monson, who retired in June, said of NFTE's impact.

Those who start the school year reluctant to introduce themselves end it as confident presenters of full-blown PowerPoint business plans, she said; they embrace subjects that, without a business perspective, would hold no appeal. For instance, NFTE math is not seemingly pointless equations, she said, but discussions and calculations regarding pricing, discounts, budgeting, and markups.

The overall intended message, said Monson, is not one particularly obvious in most hard-pressed households: "If you have your own business, you can control your destiny."

That prospect propelled Valerie Nieves, 19, of North Philadelphia, and Drew Martin, 16, of Newark, Del., through competitions at their high schools last school year and the NFTE regional contest in Philadelphia in June, earning them spots in the National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge on Oct. 3 in New York City.

Up against 36 other NFTE students from around the country, each had 8 1/2 minutes to make pitches to a panel of judges for a chance to compete in the final round that evening for the $25,000 prize. For weeks, dozens of employees at SAP in Newtown Square had helped Nieves and Martin prepare.

Nieves, who graduated in the spring from Esperanza Academy, was hawking her V-Shop app, which enables online shoppers to try on clothes - in a virtual sense, by creating avatars of themselves - before buying.

Martin, a sophomore at Newark High School, touted the custom stained-glass window business he has started with his twin brother and best friend.

Each made it to the semifinals - farther than any NFTE Philadelphia student ever has.

"I would do it all over again," said Nieves, tearful after learning she had not made the final round. "You learn so much."

Unlike Nieves, now a business major at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., Martin has more shots at an NFTE national victory - and plans to pursue it: "It's really helped me get connections."

Such spirit in the participants he has met is what prompted Adelman to agree to serve as the focus of NFTE's fund-raiser Thursday night - a way to spotlight a program he said should be required curriculum everywhere.

Why it's not is as obvious as the list of shortages facing so many school districts. Hence the need for more corporate help, said Alexander, NFTE Philadelphia's founding cochair.

"With broader support, we can change a lot of lives," he said.

If McKinney has her way, that change will reach "every community that serves a low-income population."

"Society is going to be better off," she said, "when more and more can achieve."


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull

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