Operation HOPE, a nonprofit group that provides financial literacy and small-business training, has expanded its reach to teach middle school students about entrepreneurship. For the past two years, the HOPE Business in a Box Academy (HBIABA) has worked with students in Oakland, Calif., Denver, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. The organization is partnering with Gallup to include polling to better track the results of the program.

The results so far have been encouraging. In schools that offer the HBIABA program, polls show that 79 percent of students would like to start their own business, compared with an average of 42 percent of youth nationally. “What we are looking for is a change in the culture of the school,” says Rebecca Blanco, youth business training program manager with the Youth Empowerment Program in Oakland. 

The Oakland program, which started as a pilot at Westlake Middle School, has expanded into eight public schools. Students start with financial literacy classes where they learn about what Blanco calls “financial dignity.” That is, how respect for themselves and others relates to money, credit, investments, and budgeting. Then the middle schoolers receive instruction in such topics as developing an idea, making a financial plan, communication, and public speaking

HBIABA students are given the choice of 25 types of businesses they can start for under 0. At the end of the class, “they give a presentation to Operation HOPE for a chance to be funded up to 0,” says Blanco.

“Think Shark Tank for kids, only the teeth are a little softer,” says Operation HOPE’s Tyrone Cosey. In addition, students may also be paired with business mentors who can support them as they launch their businesses

Small Funds, Big Dreams

During the pilot program, 591 students took the business classes, 100 had startup ideas to pitch at the end, and 17 businesses were awarded a total of ,880. This very modest sum of money has had a big impact on the lives of the young entrepreneurs. 

At Westlake Middle School, three startups run by graduates of HBIABA are flourishing. L & Z’s Blow You Away Catering, run by friends Leon Jones and Zuri Maunder, sells nachos and brownies out of a classroom after school one day a week. “There’s always a huge line of kids,” says Blanco. The partners already employ Jones’ little sister, who does their baking, and is thinking of adding more employees. 

Jamal White and Anthony Mata (pictured), co-CEOs of a hat embroidery company All Day By the Bay, are working on their second batch of hats and have expanded to three more color combinations.

Sweet Tooth Bakery, run by Princess Paulmerie, now in eighth grade, has been a big success. “Because of this opportunity, she was able to do an internship with a chef,” says Blanco. Paulmerie is working on expanding her dessert catering business to include prepackaged dough. 

Beyond business success, the program has had other benefits. “Something that we saw is that attendance for some of the kids went up,” says Blanco. “Their involvement in the school went up.” Paulmerie has become a student ambassador, greeting visitors and helping with school assemblies. 

“I think what’s great about the program is it really teaches kids to be more confident in themselves,” Blanco says. One of the key skills they learn is how to present themselves and their ideas. “That’s so essential to getting across their point, feeling empowered to say something, and speaking up for something they believe in.” She adds, “I think it helps them to realize there are options and they know there’s a way to get there, that it’s not out of reach.” 

An important component of the Business in a Box program is community involvement, which is offers the opportunity for small-business owners to volunteer. As Blanco says, “You might get into it to teach the kids something, but they might actually teach you a little something.” 

Photo of Anthony and Jamal courtesy of All Day By the Bay Hats.

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