Entrepreneurs start young at M.S. 223

A Mott Haven middle school is preparing its students early for life in the complex world of customer service and bottom lines, through a partnership that helps them put their business ideas to work.

Middle school students learn ins and outs of the business world

Brittni Ortiz, 12, arranged fliers neatly on the table as her business partner, Brittany Tirado, 13, pulled out a chocolate frosted cupcake and set it by a poster board.

“Brittany, this is it,” Ortiz said.

After weeks of preparation, students at M.S. 223 in Mott Haven pitched more than 20 different business ideas to their peers, teachers and business people, who acted as judges. The one-day competition gauged which start-ups had the best chance of succeeding. Since the beginning of the school year, all the seventh-graders have been learning about different career options, what their interests are and how to start their own businesses.

“This is Charmed Bake Shoppe and we decided to create this idea because we were upset there’s no Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts or anything like that really close to the school,” Ortiz told a group of students who had crowded around their poster board.

Tirado explained how their bake shop would sell everything from coffee to cupcakes and offer Wi-fi Internet and a quiet place for students to study.

“Is that a real cupcake?” one student asked. “Can I have it?”

Quickly realizing the marketing opportunity, the girls wrote numbers on pieces of paper and handed them out to students so the cupcake could be raffled off later.

M.S. 223 has partnered with the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a national program that teaches young people from low-income communities the necessary steps to becoming an entrepreneur. Only one other school in the Bronx uses the curriculum to teach students how to pitch their own business ideas.

“I think our country is founded on entrepreneurship,” said Ramón Gonzalez, principal of M.S. 223. “We want these kids to have experiences where they are not only talking about creating companies, but actually doing it.”

The  ideas students pitched in this year’s competition included removable and machine-washable hat inserts to keep baseball caps clean, waterproof sneakers, a pen mp3 player that plays music while it writes and a mobile app that charges phones and saves battery life.

Business professionals from across the city served as judges, grading each business’s pitch based on the quality and creativity of the pitches.

After hearing Charmed Bake Shoppe’s presentation, two judges grilled the girls on whether they had considered creating a mobile business to avoid the expense of a storefront. They also wanted to know if the café would only serve children, or if adults would be welcome too.

“We want our customers to feel like they’re at home, so no matter what age you are, you can go and you can buy whatever you want because we’re there for you, to please you,” Ortiz said.

Afterward, the judges said they were impressed.

“They’re, what, 12 or 13?” said Mark Stein, who works with Meringoff Properties in Manhattan. “They’re extremely poised and very well-spoken. We asked questions and they responded seamlessly.”

Dennis Miller, an engineer, said, “Now, this is the kind of thing that is probably a lot more useful for the real world than some of the other stuff you get out of textbooks.”

Nicole Lentino, a technology teacher, has run the entrepreneurship program at M.S. 223 for the past two years. She uses the curriculum to teach four different classes of seventh graders.

“Students don’t necessarily see themselves as capable of doing that,” Lentino said of students’ self-perception as business entrepreneurs. “You know, just, environmental factors, home life, whatever the reason may be, they just don’t believe they’re capable of this type of success.”

When the competition was completed at the end of the afternoon, four winning groups from each class were announced. Charmed Bake Shoppe was one of them.

The winning entrepreneurs will apply to compete in a regional competition in June, where they will face other fledgling student businesses from across the city.

“I was so excited,” Tirado said. “I thought it was going to be a close tie between us and the mp3 pen. But I think what put us over the top was the real cupcake.”

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