November 6th, 2011
05:00 PM ET

Teaching entrepreneurship in inner-city schools

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 householdsIn 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.

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Topics: Business • Education

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Masterson, richard

    Education can be fixed using programs such as this. We own a UPS Store and would love to have students learn the reality of owning a small independent business. All aspects are important to an owner from the way to treat customers and feel good about yourself; how to control margins and profits; the true cost of waste – time, material, profit margins, etc. Nothing wrong with college but the opportunity to be successfully self employed is what Main Street is all about.
    Prof Weigelt catch the Maurices of this world in this program, they will soar. Thank you

    November 6, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Reply
  2. Stefanie

    The only way the education system will be fixed in this country is when the people in charge place value in education. There in lies the basic problem. Schools don't make money, so the government looks to it as a burden, and so do many taxpayers. Politicians say the words that sound like they care, but truly they do not. They should pump millions into into schools, not wars and banks, etc. And bottom line, the parents of this great country don't seem to give a crap either. Schools are good in good areas, because the parents are aware and have genuine concern for their child's education. Most people in lower socio-economic areas are concerned with survival and don't place value in education...they don't have time. Charter schools are a joke. They are an illusion. The ones that seemingly do well, have the parents support and involvement. That is the basic difference between public schools and charter. Public schools also need to updated by light years. They are antiquated in technology. Children come into schools knowing more than what a typical classroom has. That's where money needs to invested. I believe that by getting rid of the arts will only breed a generation of barbarians–ignorant children that aren't well-rounded and we will be going backwards. We say no child left behind, but schools are in the dark ages.

    November 6, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Reply
  3. John Smith

    I watched you programme on Education in the USA with great interest. I am convinced the problem in the USA and the UK can be laid squarely at the door of School Boards, Educators and Politicians. Students and pupils simply lack discipline and have no respect for Educators at all. Educators try to be the friend/ mate of the student. How can an Educator instill a culture of learning when they fail or are simply too afraid or scared to discipline students. You are invited to watch the last episode of a BBC programme called Tropic of Cancer by Simon Reeve where he visited a school in Taiwan, a country which is rated first in whole World in Maths and second in the World in science. Just look at the discipline instilled by teachers into their students. In the USA and in the UK if you instruct or reprimand a scholar/student you are sworn at even physically attacked. Teachers are not allowed to retaliate for if they do they will be criminally charged. Throw as much money as you like at the schools, double nay! triple the salaries of teachers and you will not find any improvement untill teachers stop trying to be the mates of students and are allowed to discipline children. Politicians are to blame for the situation but for all the wrong reasons – they are the very people who have introduced restrictions which makes it imposible for teachers to instill discipline within students/pupils.

    November 7, 2011 at 3:39 am | Reply
    • Carlusha

      Great Comment. Anyone should try and educate a crowd of unruly, lazy, stupid thugs and see what they can learn.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:25 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Being smart alone is not enough, children and youngsters need support and guidance, either from their own parents or people they trust.

    November 7, 2011 at 6:28 am | Reply
  5. StreetPeople

    If you sell drugs on that corner and I sell drugs on this corner, we'll make a fortune!!!

    November 7, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Reply
  6. Eddie Hejka

    Education is not broken: High school completion rates are at an all-time high, test scores on the NAEP are up over the past 30 years, the racial acheivement gap has narrowed, the gender gap has narrowed and even disappeared at some levels, ACT scores are up and more disabled and special ed. students than ever are finishing school.

    So how did rising test scores, a narrowing achievement gap and rising completion rates come to be labeled as Failing? In part public education is being scapegoated for an economy that was ruined by well-educated private school kids from wall street and Washington. No one credited hard-working public school teachers in the 1990's when we had a budget surplus and low unemployment. No. This attempt to discredit public education is driven by a political and economic motive to priviatize education as has already been done to much of our military and prison systems much to our embarassment.

    November 7, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Reply
  7. John Grubb

    I agree with most of what you say: improve education and the economy and upward mobility leap forward. But don't forget some important qualities that should be inherent in each person. The first is emphathy or compassion. It is overwhelmingly obvious when you observe our dysfunctional political system and our treatment of others who are different than us how much those qualities are needed in a citizentry. There will be no equality without the sense of connectedness to others, and it is as needed in a school cirriculum as math and science. (I am not mitigating the need for math, science, or history here.)

    Another element of every school cirriculum that is always first to be cut, even before sports, is the arts. I read somewhere once, "without imagination, there is no humanity." That is so true and creativity is in the domain of the arts. Schools need to be more well-rounded than just teaching about hypothethuses and protozoans.

    A disturbing element of Gates assessment is that we have to find the brightest, but I.Q. is only one characteristic of a strong leader. Being able to connect to a student on a personal level is as important as I.Q.. A favorite teacher any of us remember is one we thought cared about us and that motivated us to excel. How do you evaluate that with tests?

    November 7, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  8. Darwin Throne

    I don't know where Zakaria got his numbers for California's budget on education and prison spending. It sure isn't reality. He stated on the 11/6/2011 GPS show that CA spends more on its prisons than on k-12 school. The fact is that in 2011 the budget was $36 billion for schools and $9 billion for corrections. The interviews with Duncan and Gates were pathetic. The schools in the US can't be fixed from Washington DC. They will only get fixed when parents take more interest in their kids education as happens in Charter schools.

    November 7, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Reply
  9. Amy

    There are changes that need to be made in education, but the greatest change needs to be made in the American culture. People in China and in other countries are brought up to value education, and are taught to behave. Students there are not allowed to hit the teacher and throw desks like they are here. In the United States all they get is a few days of suspension and then they are back at school. Depending on the parents, a three day suspension to the student could mean a three day holiday from school. If education continues down the path that it is going, I'm afraid of what it is going to be like in schools. Eventually no one is going to want to teach. It is not the responsibility of the school to teach a child how to behave, they should already know that when they come to school. If a child has not been taught how to behave, then the academics are not going to be there. Take it from someone who is a teacher.

    November 8, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  10. PMCDonald

    Apparently Fareed's one-man campaign to put education back at the heart of American economic development is not getting much traction with the GOP. Perry will get rid of the Education department when he's president. I wonder how many other candidates will. It beggars belief really. How many years before America turns into a big Mexico?

    November 10, 2011 at 8:32 am | Reply
    • Occupado

      Fareed's one-man campaign to put education back at the heart of American economic development isn't getting much play from the teachers unions, either.

      November 12, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  11. JVV

    The biggest news in public education was missing from your show, Mr. Z. The Common Core curriculum for English and Math and for writing and reading in history and science has been adopted by 44 states. It is a demanding, sensible curriculum, the first attempt in the U.S. to standardize a curriculum nationally. All curricula depend on assessment tools to define them and these are also being developed. Meanwhile, we are being given direction about how to deliver material, especially reading material. As a classroom teacher, I feel a revolution is happening, the first in 40years.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Reply
    • Carlusha

      National curriculum, latest technology, differentiated instruction, critical thinking, onlilne virtual schools, performance pay for teachers, etc, despite of hundreds of educational fads students still can't write their own name or undestand a simple sentence, let alone multiply or divide two numbers. Does anybody in this country undestand that your whole educational system is ridiculous – from what is taught to how it is taught, from textbooks to teachers who are products of the same educational system only circa 20 years ago. In every country in the world teachers teach the same group of students for many years, here students have new teachers every year. In other countries you will never hear about benchmarks, pacing guides, spiral curriculums, a hodge-podge of botany, anatomy, physisc, chemistry and natural history taught as so-called science course, they teach trigonometry in 7th grade, astronomy and calculus in 10th, etc. By the 3rd grade our students are three years behind. They can't hold a pencil, they are sloppy and can't retain anything because we don't teach memorization. God forbid a techer will require to memorize a poem, this is rout learning, we should teach critical thinking instead, even if a child can't spell his name or add two numbers. Medical professionals need to be involved to see what happens in a child's brain when a teacher teaches like her hair is on fire, and the next day the child doesn't remember anything, or can't acquire even the very basis skill. There are so many things that are absolutely wrong: from the amount of time the students have for different subjects ( equal for math and physical education, for example), to the grading system and all the concessions the teachers are required to make to please the parents, from pacing guide that require that teachers skip around the textbook ignoring the coherence of the subject matter in favor of alignment to the continual districts tests, from chaos in the classroom and constant talking of the students to the absenteeism, discipline and obsession with technology, that only make kids dumber. Dumbing down Amarica – that's the revolution I see happening. And I am scared to live in this country 10-15 years from now.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:09 am | Reply
  12. Ms. McGowan

    Education in the U.S. is a ever-revolving mechanical door spinning prepetual axis that I have no control and will no personal input . I am a teacher of 25 years. Am I a 'professional' now? Do the U.S. regard me as a expert of my craft? No matter how many additional graduate degrees I obtain at a 'top',,,4.0 GPA, will the US respect me as a PROFESSIONAL?? If I were a Surgeon, an Attorney,a Fireman, a Court Judge, or even a 'Rocket Scientist....would I have to be subjected to one-two year supervisory evaluations (EVERY year) of the actions I make on a daily basis in front of my "patients, criminal I respresent , or my court decisions!??
    NOW....can you ( society) FIRST.....START fixing that ?!!!
    OK,,,,,,raise my salary......BUT I'd rather you raise your level of respect for me and my co-workers
    !! BELIEVE US.....we (the really great teachers ...that aspired to do it) are STILL don't doing it for the money! We love children and CARE about them and their future!!

    November 13, 2011 at 3:01 am | Reply
  13. Ms. McGowan

    .....could not correct typos/errors .....before quick 'post' click. SORRY ...too emotional !

    November 13, 2011 at 3:06 am | Reply

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