Girls get hands-on lessons in entrepreneurship
Fri, 25 Jan 2002 12:50:28 -0500 (EST)

From: bitbitch  
 Subject: Girls get hands-on lessons in entrepreneurship
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 Fri Jan 25 12:50:28 2002
 oooh... I am so jealous.  I wish we had something like this in 7th grade.  What a great concept, to teach it young (and with little actual money) rather than learning it the hard way :)  

 Posted at 10:42 p.m. PST Thursday, Jan. 24, 2002



 Mercury News



  On the first day of class at the Girls' Middle School in Mountain View, Donna Fedor told students in the entrepreneurship program that her own start-up folded seven months ago.

       ``I had cash-flow problems,'' said a wistful Fedor, who launched WebErrand, a software firm, in January 2000 and shuttered it about a year later when the money  ran out.

       This sent a quiver of uncertainty through the seventh-graders enrolled in the yearlong program designed to roll out student businesses through real funding from real venture capitalists. The program's biggest night was Thursday, when prospective entrepreneurs made their pitches to the VCs.

       ``I'm kind of worried, but not really because I think our products are cute,'' said Morgan Davies, whose company was seeking a $100 cash infusion from potential investors so it could sell more wallets made entirely out of layers of duct tape.

       Kersten Schnurle, inventor of the duct tape wallet, thinks the money holders will sell briskly at around $5 each to their target market of folks ages 4 and up.

       ``They're made of shiny tape that looks really neat and lasts really long,'' said Kersten, who made the first one for her dad -- who is still using it three years later.

       The entrepreneurial program is a highly touted feature of the private school's core curriculum that has garnered national attention. It was unveiled three years ago when Silicon Valley was awash in seed money and investors were aggressively seeking out viable business ideas.

       Now, evidence of the dot-com shakeout can be found on the classroom floor.

       Some of the volunteer coaches, who help the students formulate business plans and dream up snappy slogans, have painfully personal stories to share about managing start-ups that flopped, including online grocer Webvan and online pet supplies emporium Others are still hanging on.

       The 12- and 13-year-olds quickly learned that high tech is high risk. In the first year of the program, students launched two technology companies -- a Web portal for girls and a Web page design service. This year, everyone stuck with traditional teenage businesses, such as beaded necklaces and bags of candy.

       Fedor and co-teacher Ann Tardy have retooled the course to reflect more of the bumps that abound in the real world -- especially in Silicon Valley.

       The budding businesswomen now are required to give investors a 5 percent to 10 percent ownership stake in their start-ups, consider merging with or being acquired by their classmates' companies in March, and pay taxes at the end of the school year. 

       And, unlike previous program participants, this year's young entrepreneurs were not guaranteed to receive all the money they requested from venture capitalists.

   A few elements of the course still jolt reality.

       ``We're paid $2, which is way below minimum wage,'' said Sarah Benjaram about her hourly pay. Her team's company projects making $1,800 in profit during the school year by selling hot chocolate topped with whipped cream, M&Ms or marshmallows.

       ``If we were a real company, people would be suing us all the time.''  

       In the seventh grade, 16 students -- or 38 percent -- have at least one parent who has launched a company. But the girls still learned plenty in school about start-ups.

       ``Some of them have even learned that they aren't cut out for business and shouldn't be launching start-ups,'' said Cameron Tuttle, author of ``The Bad Girl's Guide'' books and a volunteer coach. ``It's great to learn that in the seventh grade than out in the real world after you've raised $5 million.''

       One of the hardest tasks, they said, was deciding what to sell.

       Discarded ideas included making arm socks, telling fortunes and ``drawing on people.''

       The girls also learned about fierce competition. StarSweets, the business selling hot cocoa, pitted itself against Starbucks. But team member Madeline Minor was not worried about her classmates flocking to the behemoth coffee chain.

       ``Our advantage over our competition is we're right at school,'' Madeline said. ``I don't think people really would want to walk two miles to the nearest coffee shop.''

       The students pitched 10 business plans using PowerPoint presentations to a panel of venture capitalists gathered at the Microsoft Conference Center in Mountain View  on Thursday night. Each team sought $100 to $400 in funding so they could hire more employees or expand their product lines.

       During rehearsals, some girls were plauged by the jitters, saying things like ``profit margarine'' or breaking down in giggly fits.

       They detailed plans for quality control (``Before we sell, we will taste test our products to make sure they're good.''); marketing (``Our marketing includes signs in the hallways and talking to our parents, which will spread the word very fast.''); and pricing (``We're going to have low prices because most girls our age don't have much money, and once they do, they spend it all.'')

       Last year the junior entrepreneurs raised more than $2,000 in seed money. After paying off $50 interest-free loans from the school bank and donating 20 percent of the profit to charity, the team members equally divided the remainder -- which ranged from $4 to $1,000.

       All 19 businesses launched in the program's two-year history turned a profit. However, none lasted beyond the end of the school term, said Mary M. Somerville, the school's director of development. 

       Kersten Schnurle, who spends half an hour making each duct tape wallet, may know why.

       ``It's really a lot of work out of school,'' Kersten said. ``I like having my summers to myself.''



 Contact Nicole C. Wong at or (650) 688-7587.

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