Building Life Skills with Business


MP Guru
Above: Participants in our entrepreneurship camp program in Mexico plan to make calendars out of their photographs and use the money to help fund a new science lab at their school.

About half way through my MBA I began to realize that I was not only learning new skills, but also a new way of thinking. The change in perspective was a bit unexpected. I knew I would learn analytic skills, leadership and marketing techniques at Columbia Business School, but I did not anticipate evaluating opportunities differently or gaining insight into why some business prosper while others fail. That perspective would have served me well in a number of situations. It is something I should have and could have learned in high school or even earlier.

About a year ago I decided to use this summer to try and teach kids about how to be entrepreneurial in business, in life and in their academic careers. A friend of mine runs a NGO in Mexico called PEACE Mexico. The organization hosts summer camps for children and she agreed to let me offer a program focused on entrepreneurship to middle school and high school kids. We opened the camp to public school kids in some of the smaller towns surrounding Puerto Vallarta.

At first, it was a bit of a hard sell — when you are 14 spending your summer learning how to run a business is not the most exciting proposition. But we created a fun and interactive curriculum that teaches entrepreneurship through English language classes, art workshops, games and outdoor activities. We hired most of our camp counselors locally and we also have six volunteer English teachers from the U.S., including Lauren Wall ’09.

On the first day of camp the students heard from a roundtable of local business people who spoke about their experiences as entrepreneurs. The business people spoke about the hard work, challenges and failures they have experienced as entrepreneurs in addition to talking about all the great parts of owning a business. One of the guest entrepreneurs distributes ice cream to local restaurants. Each flavor of ice cream is packaged in the skin of the fruit that it comes from (coconut, orange, etc.). The campers loved hearing about that business because ice cream is always a popular topic, but also because the business idea was launched almost a decade ago in a similar student business plan competition. The ice cream is now sold throughout all of Mexico.

In addition to learning about entrepreneurship we also did all the things you are supposed to do at summer camp — go to the beach, play soccer, have water balloon fights. Both campers and counselors have had a great time.

We are now wrapping up the fourth and final week of camp. Our 60 campers have learned about famous entrepreneurs, considered their career plans and thought about how they can make a difference in their communities. They have also learned the four Ps of marketing (product, price, place and promotion) and discussed operating and financing businesses. Each group has created a plan for a business that they would like to launch and they will be pitching their ideas in a business fair to local entrepreneurs in hopes of finding funding.

Our students have come up with a range of business ideas. All are easy to start and appropriate for young entrepreneurs to run. One group of kids will take photos in their communities and use those photos to hold photo exhibits and to make calendars. With the money they collect from the calendars they will make improvements to their school (a new science lab is the first project they hope to fund). A second group is going to start a dance school and will teach dances to kids in their community for quincenas (a Mexican tradition much like a debutante ball or Sweet Sixteen celebration). A third group plans to open an after school program for primary school children where they will offer help with homework and extra curricular activities.

All of the business ideas are unique. And like all ideas, some will succeed and others will fail. However, our hope is that the lessons learned can be applied later in life when the students are faced with supporting themselves and their families. For many of the students who are attending the summer camp, life’s prospects are challenging. They come from low-income families and the chances are high that many will not complete high school. Even for those who do make it through high school and college, salaries can still be very low. In Mexico, business ownership is often the key to achieving a solid middle-class lifestyle.

Although I won’t have three months off next year to run the summer camp, the groundwork has been laid. The camp is self-sustainable and the curriculum can be reused. This year we charged kids 10 pesos a day to attend (about $0.80 USD). But not to worry, I haven’t given away all the secrets of business school — some of the kids can probably still benefit from getting an MBA later in life.

Melissa Floca ’09 received the 2009 Nathan Gantcher Prize for Social Enterprise.

Photos courtesy of Melissa Floca ’09