Why 4,300 Teenage Entrepreneurs Are About to Descend on New York

In just a few short days, professionals will join together in New York for one of the largest business exhibitions in the United States. Their goal? Network and showcase their simulated companies. And as happens in many conferences, they’ll share ideas and compete in friendly competitions.

But these are no ordinary professionals.

These leaders–more than 4,300 of them–are all teenagers who are part of Virtual Enterprises International’s Youth Business Summit (YBS). The event, scheduled for April 16-18 on Pier 92 in Manhattan, brings together high school students from seven countries who have created, implemented and operated simulated businesses in their classrooms through the school year. The students, who took on corporate roles and performed duties like payroll and hiring, will have a chance to buy and sell their products and services to the other exhibiting businesses, as well as to regular consumers.

Why start people so young?

Nick Chapman, President and National Program Director for Virtual Enterprises International, summarizes why it’s so important for these teens to participate in simulated business and YBS.

“In entrepreneurship, we are encouraged to ‘fail fast’ or ‘fail forward’ so that we can figure out what we didn’t know sooner, leading to success sooner. I think the same concept applies here. We want students to have the opportunity to ‘test drive’ various jobs and career opportunities to better understand the world of work before they make important (and expensive!) decisions about where they go to college and what they decide to major in.”

Amanda Thome, 17-year-old CEO of Essence from Mount ST. Mary Academy (Buffalo, NY), asserts that the program helped her overcome her shyness and become confident about speaking in front of others. “VE has shown me that business is more than sitting at a desk all day,” she says. “[…] I thought I wanted to be a teacher because that’s what my mom does. But then I got into VE and I saw so many other options and had the chance to try new things and see that I am good at things other than what I had originally thought.”

Casey McLallen, Vice President Human Resources for TeaTreat Box Co. from JP Taravella High School (Coral Springs, FL) echoes Thome. “[My position] was not originally the position I wanted at the beginning of the school year, but I am glad with the position I ended up with. I think I fit this job and department best, especially after experiencing all this role has to offer.”

“I chose to participate because I have a passion for business,” says 18-year-old Cheryl Ma, COO of Global Goodies from Parkway West High School (Ballwin, MO). “[…] Even though I know I will not pursue science as a career, the general push to learn STEM has made me feel trapped in terms of opportunity for higher learning. So, when I found out about VEI, I was excited that there was such a unique and valuable class that taught me what I was interested in learning.”

But what specific skills does the experience really teach the teens?

What can they carry over to real-life jobs? Chapman claims that participants learn critical elements like how to communicate professionally, lead teams and collaborate. They run staff meetings, conduct evaluations and manage projects. In fact, the VE Career Readiness Framework, developed in partnership with Deloitte, looks at the specific skills and competencies employers are demanding most, mapping them back to the VE experience.

The program doesn’t just hone soft skills, though–it reveals some of the realities of operations, too. It’s an understanding of these realities that arguably gives the students the honest perspective they need to grasp what business is like, for better or worse.

“The biggest lesson I learned was that you can’t always rely on people to get things done and some people don’t have the same drive or motivation as others,” says says 17-year-old Diana Alvarado, COO of Scoupalicious Desserts from Elizabeth Learning Center School (Cudahy, CA). “Teamwork is key, and if not everyone is on the same page, things tend to not go well.”

“The biggest thing I have learned through the class is about all the moving parts and people that make up a business,” says junior Hamil Patel, Bank Manager for TeaTreat Box Co. “Nothing gets done without teamwork, and only seeing it firsthand can really show you its importance.”

And for all you type-A micromanagers out there, Thome admits this gem: “[The program has] taught me better time management skills, and I’ve learned that I can’t do everything myself. I’ve learned how to delegate, which definitely was not in my comfort zone because even in calss projects I was always the person who just wanted to do it all myself so I knew it was done perfectly. […] I’ve learned to rely on my team to take care of the areas they’re responsible for. I have a great team around me, and together we get the work done.”

Not perfect, but still leading a charge for something different

Students in the program do see it’s flaws. They’d like to see more schools participate, for example, as that would bring even more interaction, and they’d like to improve the arrangement of the competitions to allow more preparation time between events. But they also note that, aside from more traditional options like shadowing, internships or other more general finance classes, it’s one of the few opportunities available for hands-on business experience.

Chapman highlights what might help more students get involved.

“To me, the key to getting more business leaders to support this type of engagement is in getting them to see these programs as an investment in their talent pipeline, rather than philanthropy. When leaders understand these initiatives have a direct impact on their bottom line, it makes their decision calculus a little bit different. In terms of the education community, I think there has been a distinct push nationally to incorporate more career-focused education in K-12 education, which can be seen in the recently implemented legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act. The change is coming, but slowly.”

That said, even slow change brings hope. We can do good and be part of the change process by supporting the 4,300 young people who clearly believe in it.

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