Diddy on NFTE, High School Entrepreneurs, and the Shutdown


Members of the 2013 National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge Finals with donor and entrepreneur Sean 'Diddy' Combs (right) at The Times Center on Oct. 3 in New York

Photograph by Mike Pont/Getty Images

Members of the 2013 National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge Finals with donor and entrepreneur Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs (right) at The Times Center on Oct. 3 in New York

(Corrects the spelling of Toheeb Okenla's last name in the second paragraph.)

Can entrepreneurship be taught? Maybe a better question is: What are the benefits of teaching it in an academic setting? Earlier this month, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) released survey results showing that students who completed its programs—mostly inner-city students in middle schools and high schools—were more likely to graduate from high school or earn college degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math.

More than 500,000 students have completed NFTE courses since Steve Mariotti founded the nonprofit in 1987. Last night, the organization crowned the winners of its annual youth entrepreneurship contest. Jesus Fernandez and Toheeb Okenla, 17-year-olds from South Holland, Ill., took the $25,000 first prize for their business, which designs socks with pockets sewn in for soccer shin guards. NFTE also announced a $1.2 million grant from Mastercard (MA) and $250,000 from Bad Boy Entertainment founder Sean “Diddy” Combs to continue its efforts.

In addition to teaching business skills, NFTE is good at convincing inner-city kids that their street smarts can be applied in the classroom, Combs told me in an interview before last night’s ceremony. “I’m the poster child for that,” he said. An edited transcript of my conversation with Combs follows.

How are we doing at teaching entrepreneurship in the U.S.?
I don’t know if we’re so much teaching entrepreneurship as people are taking their futures into their own hands. It’s hard for people to find jobs out there right now, and through those rough times, you have people who are going to quit, and you have people who are going to fight. I think that what’s happening is people are discovering different opportunities in their communities and understanding that if they have a good product, or have something that people want or need, they can take responsibility and accountability for their futures.

Another way to come at the question is to ask: Can entrepreneurship even be taught?
I think especially with kids from the inner city, they’re natural-born entrepreneurs, because they have to figure out how to survive. So they have it in their DNA. An organization like this can show them that they have it inside of them and can show them how to relate what they’re learning in school to their street smarts and street savvy.

What’s a lesson someone taught you when you were a young entrepreneur?
It’s a little cliché, but someone taught me, if it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense. That was after I went through a year where I had lost a lot of money—it was during the start of a recession, and I wasn’t sensitive to the economic climate. I wasn’t paying attention to what was going on in the world. If it’s raining outside, if it’s snowing—you have to know what the climate is in whatever space. I was in the retail space, I didn’t prepare for the storm. The world isn’t perfect, so plan accordingly.

What’s the weather like now? The government shutdown has been hard for some business owners.
The Republicans have taken the health-care law and made it a very personal thing. They call it “Obamacare.” They’re flexing their muscle, and they’re still getting paid, and millions of people are going to be affected. When things like that happen, it’s time to be conservative. This is not making common sense, and I would take less risk right now.

Last question. Are high school entrepreneurs better off going to college or learning through the experience of running a business?
It depends on which business. If you’re interested in engineering, I’d say, go to college. If you’re interested in finance, go to college. But there are other fields where you can get more value out of the experience of working. You might be better off working for free, or paying yourself.