Volunteers teach city students business in 'nifty' program

For a decade, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship has been working in Baltimore schools to encourage students with the potential to become tomorrow's business leaders.

The nonprofit's work has paid off, generating projects such as student-run banks and business ideas including all-natural cupcakes and "fun milk" for breakfast on the go. The group, nicknamed "Nifty," will celebrate ten years of student achievement with a gala fundraiser Wednesday at Loyola University Maryland.

NFTE, founded in New York 25 years ago, provides business learning opportunities to students in low-income communities. The city chapter is working in nine schools in partnership with several companies and more than 100 volunteers.

"We are most fortunate in our volunteers, who are the foot soldiers of the program," said Tricia Granata Eisner, executive director of NFTE Baltimore.

Lourdes Montes-Greenan, 34, and Christopher K. Nixon, 29, are both city residents and executives at PNC Bank who have made time for the program in their daily schedules.

"Lourdes grasped the concept behind NFTE the first time she saw it," said Eisner. "She comes up with ideas like community banking before I even think of them. She is community-focused. She connects with students and really believes in what NFTE does."

Montes-Greenan connected with NFTE three years ago after she sat in on a high school class and was instantly sold on the project.

"I was impressed when I found students working on a commercial for one of their products," she said. "Not only do they come up with a product, they learn how to market it."

She has since helped several schools establish student-run banks and worked with students on business plans and that ever-ready elevator pitch, "just in case you run into Donald Trump and have a quick minute to sell your idea,' she said.

The students' ideas amaze her, and their products, like a fragrant hand lotion with a student label, tempt her to buy.

"NFTE really tells these students how to make their ideas happen," she said. "It is amazing to see these guys marketing their products."

Nixon's became involved seven years ago as his "way to give back and to get more involved with city school kids," he said. He is still a volunteer and now a board member.

"He never say, 'No' to any task and is a great inspiration to all of us," said Eisner. "He really listens to these kids and then sets the bar high. He has great expectations and makes sure the kids meet them."

Nixon oversees students' bank branch operations, but rarely has to assist the experienced young bankers. He can turn his attention to the marketing course at Carver Vocational-Technical High School, one of nine city schools in NFTE's adopt-a-class program.

"These kids have great, really creative ideas," he said. "Most just need a little fine tuning. A lot learn how to carry on a business and make it a source of income. The program teaches them the value of working hard and gives them the discipline to do it.

"This is something they own and they find that the more time and energy they put into it, the more they will get out of it," he said. "They are motivated and really involved."

Clarice Tate, who teaches marketing essentials and accounting at Carver, said the NFTE program builds leadership, creativity, and problem-solving skills in the students.

"Theirs is a vested commitment and an asset to our program," she said. "These volunteers make sure the students get it — everything from how to price a product and how to figure expenses to determine if they can make a profit."

Both volunteer honorees said they are committed to the program, which Eisner assured them is already preparing for its second decade in Baltimore.

"It makes sense for the students and really catches their attention," said Montes-Greenan. "Some go on to college with their business experience, and some continue working on their business plan."

Nixon said, "I would absolutely recommend other schools look into this program. It is a great way to teach math and economics. Kids will learn a lot more through it than from traditional textbooks."

Doors open at 6 p.m. Wednesday, at McGuire Hall at Loyola University, 4501 N. Charles St. Tickets are $200 per person. Information: 410-630-1305.