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Business basics in the Bronx. Steve Mariotti gives inner-city kids a lesson on success

ACROSS the street from the Jane Addams Vocational High School, in the section of South Bronx known as Fort Apache, a row of once-thriving businesses is now a patch of rubble and trash, empty except for a few roaming dogs. The focal points for commerce in this part of the city are the flourishing crack dens that dot the neighborhood. But special-education teacher Steve Mariotti has found a way to revive free enterprise - and change the lives of troubled high school students. His South Bronx Entrepreneurial Education Project is helping turn problem students at Jane Addams into business owners. And, Mr. Mariotti says, that's improving the prospects for them and their community.

``If you're black and you have no money and you live in the projects, you rank yourself at the bottom of society's hierarchy, and it's very psychologically devastating,'' says Mariotti. ``The beauty of entrepreneurship is that it puts the kids into a different perspective. Every other person is a sales prospect. It's like lifting the Empire State Building off their backs.''

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Mariotti puts his students through a five-month capitalist boot camp. In the classroom, they learn basic business math, marketing, sales, product development, and how to write a business plan and present it to a bank. But for many kids, the high point of the training is a trip to New York City's wholesale market at 30th Street and Broadway. There, armed with a $50 grant, the students buy inexpensive consumer items like candy, clothing, and watches for resale. It's an experience more powerful than any textbook lesson.

``It's almost like a religious awakening,'' says Mariotti. ``Once a kid meets a wholesaler and buys merchandise, by the next day it's all sold - and they'll never pay retail again.''

Since the program began in 1985, Mariotti's students have started 45 companies with aggregate sales of more than $80,000. ``It doesn't sound like much,'' he says, ``but if you can get an inner-city kid to make a $10 sale that's not drug-related, that's a lot.''

Mariotti is now achieving such modest breakthroughs almost daily. Tonya Brown, 19, who learned how to care for elderly people when her disabled grandfather became a widower, is president of T&I Services and charges $8 to $10 an hour to run errands and perform household chores for senior citizens in the neighborhood.

Howard Stubbs, 18, has his own hot dog stand at a carefully staked-out territory on 170th Street. ``Academically, I'm not that good,'' Howard says. ``At math, I'm terrible. But this gives me a sense that I can control and operate my own business or corporation one day. This is just a steppingstone for me.'' He is being considered for a scholarship at Johnson & Wales Culinary School in Providence, R.I., and says he hopes to study restaurant management.

Other students have pursued less traditional ventures. Vincent Wilkins, 17, writes and performs rap songs through a company called Devastated II. But he is learning that even in the entertainment industry, business basics are crucial. He's carving out his own market niche by writing positive rap songs about urban problems like drugs and teen-age pregnancy.

``All the rappers are doing the same things,'' says Vincent, who recently recorded his first demo tape. ``People want to hear something different, and my mind is focused on the positive.''

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The successes don't surprise Patricia Black, principal of Jane Addams. She says the traits that help her kids cope with life in the ghetto - being assertive and tough - also make them natural entrepreneurs.

``They're survivalists,'' she says. ``It's a risky type of venture [for them to start a business], but it's also a risky type of venture for them to get through these mean streets.''

Ms. Black adds that entrepreneurship gives her kids a necessary alternative to traditional entry-level retail jobs. ``The kids have an aversion to working in McDonald's or Burger King,'' she says. ``They know there's very little opportunities for upward mobility there.''

After years of struggling, during which Mariotti says he spent $18,000 of his own money, the project has received grants from the Mott Foundation, Chemical Bank, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Newark, N.J., which is considering adopting the program for all its members.

In May, Mariotti was named High School Teacher of the Year by the National Federation for Independent Business. He also won first place in Mobil Oil's awards for economics teachers in New York State. This fall, instead of just teaching kids to be entrepreneurs, he'll be instructing other teachers in his methods.

The success of the program mirrors the growing nationwide support for courses that teach business and entrepreneurship to kids at ever-younger ages. Bernard H. Tenenbaum, associate director of the Snider Entrepreneurial Center at the Wharton School of Business, explains that the value of these programs isn't measured just in terms of business success.

``If someone takes entrepreneurship and doesn't go into business, was it a waste?'' he asks. ``If someone takes art history and doesn't become a museum curator, was that a waste? Entrepreneurship has nothing to do with business alone. It's an attitude that says, `I can succeed.'''

Ask Mariotti about the benefits of his program, and he won't mention profits. Instead, he explains how kids he has taught to run businesses become less violent, how girls are less likely to have unwanted pregnancies. He foresees changing the bleak streets and boarded up storefronts of Fort Apache into a thriving neighborhood based on free enterprise.

``I'm trying to produce a community of merchants,'' he says. ``If you just get people out selling instead of being prevented from working by the self-destructive welfare system, the community as a whole benefits. The program isn't about making money. It's about making people's lives better.''

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