Editor's Note: Rahilla Zafar is working with a team of writers at Arabic Knowledge @ Wharton on a book highlighting female entrepreneurs and leaders in the MENA region. She is also a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania researching solar and water innovations in developing countries. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Rahilla Zafar.
By Rahilla Zafar – Special to CNN
At 17, inner city high school student Maurice Suggs is attentive and watching him sit through classes, it’s clear he enjoys learning. A student at University City High School in Philadelphia, Suggs is part of a team of a dozen students lead by Wharton Business School Professor Keith Weigelt making history. They are developing a product that currently doesn’t exist, an online business curriculum that will be sold to high schools across the country.
“At school I help put paper in the copier and deliver mail in mailboxes, and imagined myself continuing doing that after I graduated,” says Suggs. His mother is unemployed and his father dropped out of high school and works at a school. After just a few weeks in the course, Suggs now has entrepreneurial ambitions. “Mr. Keith explains good stuff, he talks about products and also tells us how to make money,” says Suggs adding that the class and the opportunity to develop such a product makes him feel happy and inspired.
Having grown up in Chicago during the Civil Rights movement, Weigelt says that African Americans have never been fulfilled the promise of equal education or the opportunity to accumulate wealth in the same way whites have. At the beginning of one class, he writes the Bob Marley lyrics, ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery for only you can free your mind’ on the blackboard.
He tells the class of the most recent U.S. census report showing the gap between blacks and whites has only gotten bigger. The report shows that in 2009, the net worth of white households was $113,149 compared to $5,677 for black households. In September, the unemployment rate of blacks was 16 percent– twice as high compared to whites.
Weigelt tell his students that he doesn’t care what their GPA or standardized test scores are, he is there to teach them how to make money. He explains they can go and work for someone but he hopes that after their business venture is done, they will continue with their own as it’s the quickest way to make money. While the failure rate is high in entrepreneurship he tells students through hard work and with education from the business curriculum they are developing, it can be done. He and the students have just begun developing their product which they plan to sell online soon and are already receiving inquiries from some of the most expensive high schools in the U.S.
Professor Weigelt speaks about his experiences working with inner city schools and the moral obligation elite universities have in helping provide opportunities, role models and improving education in their communities. An edited transcript of his interview is below:
How did you turn your involvement with inner city communities into developing a business curriculum?
I’ve been doing this for four years. The first two years were after school programs where we would bring students from West Philadelphia High School to campus. I felt it was important to show them what a university campus was like because they have no idea. We would teach them for 2 ½ hours. Last year I got in slotted finally at the West Philadelphia High and in the fall semester taught a class on decision making and then in the spring semester a class on negotiation and sales presentation. These are both really important skills to have and it was very helpful to them, there is no question in my mind about that. Then I got the idea, if you look across high schools in the United States, there is no business curriculum.
Why is learning about wealth accumulation at a young age so important?
The thing about wealth that most people don’t understand is because of compound interest, the earlier you start to accumulate wealth the better off you are. Wealth depends more on your ancestors, so I create wealth, I pass it down to my children and blacks have never had that opportunity. Out of all the cultural groups here in the U.S. blacks were the only group where most came here against their will and never had a chance. After they're freed from slavery, the government is giving away land through Homestead Act where by and large they exclude blacks. So again, they never had the opportunity to generate wealth and now it can’t be passed on because there’s nothing to pass on.
A lot of people claim blacks don’t accumulate wealth because they don’t put in the effort and they’re lazy. I don’t believe that they have role models or opportunities. They are not getting the knowledge they need to operate in the business world. Those are my beliefs and that’s what I’ve seen here.
What are some of the challenges you’ve seen in working with young inner-city students?
In my high school last year class I had a student who was as smart as any Wharton student. He solved every game quicker than any Wharton student. He was a really smart guy but he’ll never make it. He was living in an abandoned building because his mother had kicked him out and had a girlfriend. He was a very smart guy and just not going to make it. He was 17 and I helped him get an internship working with the basketball team at Penn. It lasted two weeks. He just stopped showing up, he’d come late, and just wasn’t prepared for the world. He was a smart guy who’s just thrown everything away. There is a very small probability that he’ll be able to even use his brainpower. I’ve seen smart kids here at Wharton but he is really smart but will never make it. I just feel it’s a lack of opportunity. The education they get relative to the education that most Wharton kids get, there’s no comparison; they are just not given the resources I’m sorry.
What opportunities does building a business curriculum in inner-city schools offer?
In some high schools they have accounting, marketing, and entrepreneurship classes but there is really no business curriculum so I thought if we can institute one into inner-city high schools it would give them a huge advantage. Either it sets them up better for when they go to college or if they don’t go to college when they enter the workforce. They'll know a lot more about business and what’s going on so my goal was to create a business curriculum of six classes. They would take two as sophomores, two as juniors and two as seniors. Inner-city high schools are always saying, "Look we have this computer lab or something like that" but I wanted to give them something so they could say, "we have something at this high school that no other high school has which is a business curriculum."
Tune in to CNN at 8pm or 11pm Eastern tonight to watch a special edition of GPS, Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education.