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Off to summer camp, to learn about business

Kids as young as eight are attending workshops and programmes where they are taught entrepreneurship and startup skills


SUMMER camp: It's is not just for campfires, crushes on counsellors and crying alone in a bunk bed. Summer camp is also for capitalism, at least for a growing number of children whose parents enrol them in workshops and sleep-away trips that focus on stimulating the entrepreneurial mindset, enlightening youth about the importance of innovation, and imbuing the next generation with an appreciation for surplus value. Because really, what could be more fun?

Biznovator, a company in South Florida, offers a slew of camps, academies and programmes that are designed to teach students about how to be businesspeople and innovators (biznovators!). That includes the weeklong "Kamp for Kids," where children as young as eight will learn how to monetise their hobbies, interview local corporate executives and shoot YouTube commercials for their prospective businesses.

It also includes the more advanced "Connect Camp," for preteens and high schoolers, which is typically run at Florida International University. Campers get tours of places like a Starbucks corporate office or the Federal Reserve, and are tasked with analysing problems facing various companies and industries. Days are broken up with stints on a ropes course and trust exercises, and students are encouraged to network during lunch, which is included in the cost of tuition.

A New York-based nonprofit, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, or NFTE, also runs in-school and summer programmes for students from the sixth to 12th grades. One of the offerings - called "BizCamp: Business Ideation and Crafting the Pitch" - includes classes on "Opportunity Recognition" and "Delivering Value to Customers," and culminates in a pitch competition that is structured like an episode of the TV show "Shark Tank." (Winners are eligible to compete in a National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge, also sponsored by NFTE.)

The goal of the organisation - founded almost three decades ago with support from billionaire philanthropists, multinational banks and corporate consultants - is to "activate the entrepreneurial mindset and build startup skills in youth," said Sophia Rodriguez, the director of research and analytics at NFTE. ("We actually pronounce it 'nifty,'" she clarified.)

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Juan Casimiro, the founder and chief executive of Biznovator and a former New York City public school teacher, said: "For more than 31 years, I've been running entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership camps. When I got involved, it was harder to convince parents, funding sources, organisations, that kids can learn business very early. They couldn't believe that a kid, at 10, can pick up these business principles and literally start their own little micro business." Now, Biznovator is piloting a Kamp for Kids programme designed for children as young as four years.

"Just like we teach kids how to dissect a frog in a biology class or lab, they should learn how to dissect a business plan," Mr Casimiro said.

The Cookie Monster

That children can learn about doing business at a young age comes as no surprise to the Girl Scouts, which offers 31 entrepreneurship-related badges and has long been defined by its focus on honing leadership skills. "I can't even begin to tell you how many business owners tell me as adults that their inspiration to become an entrepreneur and business person started by selling Girl Scout Cookies," Jessica Muroff, the chief executive of the Girl Scouts' West Central Florida chapter, said.

Many of the youth organisation's chapters offer a supplemental programme called "Camp CEO," wherein Scouts are paired with a female mentor for a weekend of team-building and skill-sharing exercises. "It's the whole spectrum of a woman in business: the challenges she had to overcome, personal branding, communication, etiquette, and then also teaching these girls how to have agency," Ms Muroff said. "Then we talk about finances."

Camp Millionaire

Given that most young people aren't going to grow up to be titans of industry, education in basic financial literacy is probably the most widely useful lesson these programmes have on offer. Alicia Brockwell, the chief operation officer of an event space in Los Angeles' Highland Park, runs a programme called Camp Millionaire that is specifically meant to help families in her neighbourhood deal with debt and financial pressure. "We want kids and teens to learn how to be financially savvy before they leave home so they move out, stay out and become responsible, contributing members of society. The idea is that if you can teach kids and teach the parents, you will now have a generation that won't be hindered by the burden of debt," she said.

Mr Casimiro of Biznovator also sees entrepreneurship training as a path to financial literacy, as well as a path to freedom, especially for students from low-income communities.

Future Koch Brothers of America

In Mr Casimiro's vision of capitalism, there aren't winners and losers. "There are winners and there are learners," he said. Students in Biznovator programmes also always learn about the importance of philanthropic giving. "If you study most philanthropists, most of those guys were all entrepreneurs," he said.

Yes, there is a direct benefit, from a tax incentive perspective, for wealthy people to engage in philanthropy, but, he said, "I want to really believe that most are doing it for the right reasons - to change or impact the world."

Take Charles Koch for example. The CEO of a company he inherited from his father, Mr Koch is likely one of the 10 richest people in the world and has dedicated most of his adult life to giving his money away to causes in which he believes. Best known for building a network of wealthy donors and powerful political operatives to rival the Republican Party itself, he has also donated to NFTE.

Embedded in these programmes is at least one contradiction: They promote entrepreneurship and leadership but are also training kids to be good employees; to be innovators and disrupters but also to be model office drones.

When asked whether NFTE's programming is meant to inoculate children against the clarion call of socialism, Ms Rodriguez demurred. "We're pretty apolitical," she said. "We definitely are promoting the entrepreneurial spirit in youth, but it's not so much in order to promote capitalism versus socialism. I think it's even bigger. It's empowering the individual to feel like they can succeed no matter what the future looks like." NYTIMES

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