Students Learn About Business by Running One

The Education Trust recently found that only 8% of high school graduates pursued a course of study that prepared them for college and career; 13% pursued a course that prepared them for the workplace.

Those students may have participated in the Virtual Enterprises International program, a successful virtual entrepreneurship course that brings business–and industry mentors–into schools.

It’s modeled after a similar program that grew out of the apprenticeship model so famous for its effectiveness in Austria and Germany. VEI, a nonprofit based in New York, is now in 500 classrooms across the country.

“This is basically a workforce development model,” says Iris Blanc, VEI’s executive director and one of the first New York City educators to observe the original program in Austria. “Students in VEI are doing real work, applying what they’re learning in class to a real business setting.”

The program started in seven New York City high schools in 1996 under the aegis of the Board of Education. But schools outside the city wanted in, and soon the demand was so great that Blanc took the steps necessary to become a nonprofit.

Student participants go through every step involved in starting up a company–from handling corporate and personal taxes, direct deposit of salaries, to working with bank accounts. Students are central to the program–teachers are facilitators, and kids love the feeling of being empowered.

“It just feels like a real business,” says Hagir Elzin, CEO of Sweet and Savory, the virtual business she leads in Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, New York. The high school senior and her team devote more than 10 hours a week to developing the business. They spent more than two months writing and revising a 40-page business plan. She and her staff work with a mentor from Deloitte.

“We’re using the culture and diversity of Brooklyn as a marketing angle for our business,” she says. Initially interested in law and international relations, Hagir says she’s discovered an entrepreneurial, ambitious side to herself she didn’t know existed. Now she plans to minor in marketing or entrepreneurship.

To participate, schools must have the technology infrastructure necessary to run the program. VEI has developed a curriculum and provides teacher training; it also charges a nominal fee to participating schools.

“Students learn about business by running a business,” says Blanc. “VEI provides authentic learning opportunities as well as business and industry mentors. Businesses also host internships. They are identifying talent for their companies.”

For more information about how your high school or middle school can get involved in providing real-world learning and mentorship opportunities–as well as international competitions–to your students, go to VEI’s website.