School program gives elementary students experience as entrepreneurs

Watch out, Donald Trump.

Eleven-year-olds are buzzing about profit margins. Boys who barely reach your waistline have been named vice presidents of finance. And girls in pigtails are vying for venture capital.

By Jessica Ravitz
The Salt Lake Tribune

Magna Elementary students marched into a boardroom – or rather a schoolwide assembly in their gym – earlier this month to show off their entrepreneurial skills and promote their new businesses.

The "companies" – all of them creating and marketing friendship bracelets – bore names like Go-Go Bracelets and Willy Wonka’s Tree of Bracelets. They touted design mottoes such as "We make ’em and ship ’em out" and "If you build it, they will come."

Students from the west-side school’s fourth, fifth and sixth grades recently participated in a financial-literacy program sponsored by the San Francisco-based nonprofit BizWorld Foundation .

The eight-hour reusable curriculum, which is free to schools that cannot afford it and $79 per classroom for those that can, allows third-graders through eighth-graders to simulate starting and running a small business. Kids apply for company positions, and then they design, manufacture, advertise and evaluate their products.

As Magna’s young marketing teams frantically rehearsed their ad campaigns, which would be performed at the assembly, Principal Ernie Broderick said, "It’s a totally integrated learning experience for them . . . as close to the real thing as we can get."

BizWorld’s model was conceived by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper after his 8-year-old daughter asked him to explain what he did. Seven years after its founding, the curriculum has touched about 100,000 students in 50 states and 16 nations.

Two heavy hitters who joined Magna’s meeting were Congressman Chris Cannon, R-Utah, and Scott Anderson, president and CEO of Zions Bank.

Both men tied the importance of financial education to the state’s future. Cannon, who recommended Magna Elementary for the BizWorld program, said Utah tops the nation in bankruptcy rates.

"Having people understand how to balance a checkbook goes a long way in preventing bankruptcy," he said.

Anderson pointed out that 95 percent of Utah businesses are small businesses. Encouraging young minds to think this way is "just fabulous," he said. "They’re having a good time while learning skills they’ll carry with them throughout their lifetimes."

The gym floor filled up with grade-schoolers, eager to see the ads created by the four participating classrooms. (Thirteen additional classrooms are scheduled to follow suit in the coming months.)

Armed with play money, the younger students – from kindergarten through second grade – will participate as consumers. The sales teams will compete for their dollars.

"And now the moment we’ve been waiting for: the unveiling of the commercials," announced Catherine Hutton, 40, who calls herself a "reformed investment banker" and is currently executive director of BizWorld.

A succession of marketing teams took center stage to promote their friendship bracelets. One group acted out a spat between friends who reconciled after being offered "some bracelets to fix your friendship." Another student-actor pretended to be blind, until someone slapped a bracelet around his wrist.

A third team offered up: "Are you lonely? Need a friend? Then come on down to Pink Pickle Bracelet."

Anderson challenged the students to a round of negotiations after their performances ended. He said he wanted to buy enough friendship bracelets for Cannon to take back to Washington and distribute to Congress and the president.

"Would I get a bulk discount?" he asked the young entrepreneurs assembled in front of the stage.

One little girl called out, "I’d give you a $5 discount" per bracelet. But with an original sale price of $5 apiece, Anderson reminded students about the importance of revenue.

In the end, he offered $2,000 to the school, asking each company to make him 100 bracelets.

"Can you get me a hundred from each class for Mr. Anderson?" Principal Broderick asked. The students, who hadn’t tackled mass production yet, looked at one another – some visibly gulping – before they agreed to take on the order.

With 50 percent of Magna Elementary’s 880 students on free or reduced lunch, Broderick said he felt lucky to have the program.

So far, only three other Utah schools have threaded BizWorld into their curricula.

Julie Glusker, 37, the foundation’s Salt Lake City-based program manager, said the group hopes to launch the program in 80 Utah classrooms by May.

Teachers who tap the curriculum – with the help of an instructional video and scripted lesson plans – also laud the program. They say it incorporates skills such as math and English, while promoting confidence, communication and teamwork.

"From the first minute I started talking about it, they were so excited to come to school," said Magna sixth-grade teacher Laurie Steed.

After the assembly, a pack of teacher Kimberlee Affleck’s fifth-graders talked about their experiences. Company President Katelynn Jensen, 10, said choosing between bracelets was the hardest part of her high-powered position. Tori Kieran, 10, who helped head up sales, rattled off information on the merchandise.

"Most of them wanted to use beads, but we didn’t," Tori explained, it came to making decisions, "There was a lot of arguing."

But, hey, no one said running your own company would be easy.

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