Getting Down to Business

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Dec 04, 2009 12:01 AM

This has been a bad year for both rich and poor, and particularly annoying for celebrities. The masters of the universe demonstrated how they can't even master Wall Street, leaving the rest of us to pay for the clean-up, and their big houses and luxury cars no longer invite the unquestioning respect of the shallow and the superficial.

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Crashing a White House party isn't as much fun as those Washington social climbers thought it would be -- investigations by Congress and the Secret Service are no fun at all. Super celebrity and super bucks can't even guarantee a handsome Tiger and his beautiful tigress the right to share a 5-iron in peace.

When life gets tough, everyone has to adjust. The big players on Wall Street won't give up their bonuses, but they're looking for ways to make friends as well as money. The wastefully affluent life is empty when you inspire contempt, not envy.

Investing in guilt management, the CEO of Goldman Sachs wants to give half a billion dollars to thousands of small businesses to get them over the hump of the recession. That's a large helping of potatoes even for a company with profits over $3 billion, and it's more than a mere gesture to failing businesses on the receiving end.

No one cares much about the feelings of recession tycoons -- they endure rejection all the way to the bank -- but the rest of us do care when the greed and selfishness of modern robber barons give capitalism a bad name. To echo Winston Churchill on democracy, capitalism is the worst economic system of all, except all the others. When the excesses of greedy capitalists make socialism sounds better than it is, there's cause for concern.

Inspiring young people to think about starting a business in such a climate of suspicion is difficult. It's easier for the young to think of going into government service, where the pay is good, nobody expects a lot and government employees are rarely riffed or fired. An entrepreneur, on the other hand, starts only with the hard work of one.

Fortunately for all of us, the American spirit of innovation and entrepreneurial ambition still captures the imagination and skills of certain teenagers. Business and economics continue to be popular high school electives. Teachers in the public schools, where a student drops out every nine seconds, are finding that one way to seize the attention of a teenager is to teach the skills for making money.

A new documentary movie, which ought to be screened in every high school, tells fascinating stories of several of our best and brightest young men and women in low-income neighborhoods who competed for a $10,000 prize in how to devise working plans for small businesses. The sponsor, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, helped with lessons and guidance.

We're not talking about lemonade stands. In the film, "Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon," teenagers tell how they learned about unit costs, profit margins, budgets, recordkeeping, marketing strategies and potential return on an investment.

Jasmine Lawrence, a 17-year-old at Williamstown High School in New Jersey, for example, used a commercial hair relaxer when she was 11, and all her hair fell out. That painful memory inspired her to look for an alternative. She researched commercial hair straighteners, tested organic substances in a science laboratory and drew up her own formula for a relaxer without chemicals. She tried it on herself, and it worked. She gave it to neighbors. They liked it, too. She eventually won a contract to market it at Wal-Mart.

Amanda Loyola, age 15, daughter of immigrants from Brazil, was inspired by her father, who arrived in Brooklyn speaking little English, and got a job as a cook at McDonald's. He eventually became a chef with a restaurant of his own, and Amanda helped in the kitchen and learned how to cook. When her dog died, she attributed it to something in the meat-based dog food, so she made a peanut butter-based dog biscuit with neither meat nor chemicals. The dogs in her neighborhood seemed to prefer her EcoDog Treats to the commercial dog biscuits, and a new business was born.

The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship has reached 300,000 public school students so far, making capitalism student-friendly, showing them that starting a business is difficult, but with drive, skill and the mastery of business techniques it can be done.

"If you don't take risks," said one finalist in the contest, "you'll never know what you could have done." There's hope for us yet.