The YEScarolina Business Plan Competition, held in a low-ceilinged auditorium at the College of Charleston, is a cross between a high school speech club meeting and an episode of Shark Tank. One after another, students stand and deliver a well-polished 30-second pitch, followed by an eight-and-a-half-minute business plan presentation, which is then followed by a Q&A session with the judges.
Some of the students stand stock-still when their turn comes at the district-level competition, while others deliver their talks with the cocksure swagger only a teenager can muster. Wando High School senior Drew Aikman splits the difference. Dressed sharply in a gray suit, he lays out a plan for a mobile car washing business before delivering a deadpan punch line about a unique advantage he has in the carwash industry: "I'm a fast, energetic, and charming teenager."
The Business Plan Competition, which takes place at the school, district, and state levels in South Carolina, is hosted by the nonprofit organization Youth Entrepreneurship South Carolina (YEScarolina), which works to teach entrepreneurship principles to grade-school students. The competition is made possible by a $50,000 grant from the Motley Rice Law Firm and the Mark Motley Foundation. Cash prizes are awarded at each competition level, and first place in the state gets a check for $3,000. State winners who go on to the national competition, hosted by the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE, pronounced "Nifty"), can win up to $25,000 in cash and prizes.
The competition is one part of YEScarolina's mission in the Charleston County School District. Another major part is training teachers and donating textbooks to set up entrepreneurship classes.
When YEScarolina founder Jimmy Bailey first read about NFTE's mission in 1998, South Carolina schools didn't offer entrepreneurship as an elective. Now, entrepreneurship classes are offered at James Island Charter High School, St. John's High School, Wando High School, Military Magnet Academy, West Ashley High School, the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science, and the private Charleston Collegiate School.
The classes are based on NFTE-developed textbooks and curriculum, which teach everything from budgeting to marketing to presentation skills. The national organization commissioned a study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education that found students' interest in attending college increased 32 percent over the course of the program, independent reading increased 4 percent, and leadership behavior increased 13 percent. A separate study by the David H. Koch Charitable Foundation found that 36 percent of alumni of a NFTE program in Washington, D.C. went on to start their own businesses, compared to 9 percent of a control group.
Students taking the entrepreneurship classes have the option of participating in the Business Plan Competition, and this year, certain students who succeeded at the district level were paired up with mentors from the local business community.
When Bailey talks about YEScarolina, he emphasizes the potential to turn around the lives of students from low-income families. Growing up poor and bored with school, Bailey credits his later success in life to state Sen. T. Allen Legare, who took Bailey under his wing as a high school student. After high school, Bailey took an interest in politics, worked for several campaigns, served in the state House from 1988 to 1994, and started a successful commercial real estate company.
"How did the son of a cab driver get hooked up with this guy?" Bailey says. In his case, it was dumb luck. Bailey says their first encounter went like this: He was throwing a baseball against the steps of his parents' house when Legare, whose daughter was in Bailey's class, drove up in a car and rolled his window down. "He said, 'Go upstairs and put on a shirt. Gentlemen don't stand in the street without a shirt on.' "
For Bailey, the mentorship component of the Business Plan Competition is crucial because it reminds him of his own childhood. "These kids might be meeting their Allen Legare during this process," he says.
Jimmy Bailey hasn't officially set foot in the political arena since he ran for mayor of Charleston in 2003, but his work with YEScarolina still has political ramifications. After Gov. Mark Sanford signed the Education and Economic Development Act in 2005, requiring high school students to declare a major and take classes related to their "career clusters," Bailey found two powerful allies in state Sen. Glenn McConnell and Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell. After speaking to Bailey about his program, they helped secure state funding for YEScarolina to offer free training to 100 teachers per year, setting up entrepreneurship classes in schools around the state.
But each year, as the legislature overrode Sanford's legendarily sweeping budget vetoes, Bailey says the funding shrunk, until the legislature failed to override Gov. Nikki Haley's veto of YEScarolina funding during her first year in office in 2011.
Today, YEScarolina focuses its efforts in Charleston, Dorchester, and Berkeley counties. Bailey says he is interested in bringing the program to Burke Middle High School and North Charleston High School, two Charleston County schools with At-Risk ratings on the state report card, but he says the principals there never returned his phone calls. NCHS principal Robert Grimm "doesn't recall speaking with Jimmy Bailey and doesn't know much about the program," according to a district spokesman, and Burke Principal Maurice Cannon was unavailable for comment.
In the Charleston County School District, entrepreneurship classes fall under the authority of Ginger Reijners, director of Career and Technology Education. According to Reijners, a number of factors can determine whether a school offers entrepreneurship classes, including expressed student interest, the need for entrepreneurship classes as a part of a career cluster, and the presence of teachers who have received training to teach entrepreneurship.
Reijners says she is not aware of any quantitative data that the district tracks that would prove the efficacy of entrepreneurship classes, but she says that, like other classes offered through her department, it gives students a chance "to explore interests that they have."
"It's an opportunity for them to learn a basic foundation for setting up a business and what it takes — and just to be exposed to other entrepreneurs," Reijners says.
A nervous hush fell over the cafeteria at St. John's High School as guest speaker Rodney Walker began his presentation. "This morning, my sister was shot in Chicago," he announced quietly. "She was walking to the grocery store to buy a cake for her little daughter, and someone got out of a car and shot her. She's in critical condition. She was shot four times today. This is my little sister. She's 19."
This wasn't what Walker had come to Johns Island to talk about on a March morning. A young black man who had overcome homelessness and escaped the cycles of drug addiction and violence in inner-city Chicago as a child, he had started a video production business with a $200 prize from a NFTE competition, turned his failing GPA around, graduated from Morehouse College, and enrolled at Yale University as a graduate student in finance and ethics. Jimmy Bailey had flown him down to deliver an inspirational message. He was a poster child for entrepreneurship classes, but his home was still in Chicago, and his family was facing many of the same problems they always had.
"I have changed, but my circumstances haven't changed," Walker said. "If you can change the way you think about your situation, you can go anywhere. You can do anything."
Sarah Buncum, who teaches the entrepreneurship class at St. John's, said the circumstances Walker described from his childhood were all too familiar. "We know of children in foster homes, homelessness, gang violence even right on the island," says Buncum, a St. John's graduate who has taught at the school for 16 years. Last year, she says, a student's brother was shot in West Ashley.
In Buncum's class, which takes place first thing in the morning Monday through Friday, students learn how to write a business plan, critique each other's business models, and deliver elevator pitches. They learn from a set of textbooks donated by YESCarolina, and some of the students put their learning into action. Buncum says students from her class have gone on to start businesses in pet-sitting and the music industry.
Ashanti Ford, now a rising senior at St. John's, used the class to work out a business plan for a bakery. Ford says some of her family members are incarcerated, and Walker's story hit close to home for her and her classmates. "Some other people who have business experience, they don't really come from the same background like we do, like he does," Ford says. "So it's different, like when he said his sister got shot, that's something a lot of people here can relate to."
For Bailey, who attended St. John's, bringing entrepreneurship classes to the Johns Island school was personally important. He's also got his eyes on development patterns and a recovering housing market.
"Here on Johns Island, when the boom comes back, this is ground zero," Bailey said before Walker's presentation. "Why should these kids work for somebody when they can start their own businesses?"