Neelam Patel, Vice President, Programs Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship

Neelam Patel, Vice President, Programs Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship

American View: What is the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE)?

Neelam Patel: The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) provides programs that inspire young people from low-income communities to stay in school, recognize business opportunities, and plan for successful futures. We offer innovative and rigorous entrepreneurship education programs in and out of the classroom. We sow the seeds of innovation that will drive economic progress for years to come.

American View: What did you do before joining NFTE and what inspired you to get involved?

Neelam Patel: Prior to coming to NFTE, I taught in public schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District and the New York City Board of Education. In addition, I was an instructor and supervisor for Education students in the Master’s programs at Mercy College and at Teachers College, Columbia University. I have a B.A. from the University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA), an M.S. in Educational Leadership from Pepperdine University (Malibu, CA), and am currently pursuing a Doctorate Degree at Teachers College, Columbia University, in Curriculum Studies (New York, NY). I am also a 2003 National Board Certified Teacher.

I decided to join NFTE because I wanted to work for an organization that had a different point of view on education. In the U.S., we focus a lot on standardization and test taking skills. Many students do not learn this way, and I liked how NFTE focused on experiential learning and teacher training. I also believe that entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity are key elements to future prosperity and success for any student.

American View: What kind of specific programs does NFTE provide?

Neelam Patel: Our model centers on the classroom, with entrepreneurship curricula that teach math and literacy skills – all in the context of building a business plan based on a student’s original idea. NFTE’s curriculum meets national social studies and mathematics learning standards, as well as language arts, math, science, technology, and social studies in several states.

Neelam Patel participates in a panel discussion with Ambassador Roos at the Tokyo American Center Entrepreneurship Fair.

Our programs are rigorous, experiential, and relevant to real life, as well as vital to students’ futures. We support teachers, giving them the tools they need to inspire students to learn through entrepreneurship. We provide professional development, including training to certify teachers to deliver the NFTE program. NFTE’s program staff provide one-on-one, in-class support on a regular basis. We offer lesson plans and guidance through web-based tools and give teachers a chance to connect with one another, to share resources and ideas. We work with school administrators to help them reach district-wide educational objectives and invite volunteers from the local business community to bring the outside world into our programs. Business leaders come to classrooms to discuss their work and inspire students. Volunteers serve as mentors for students, business plan advisors, and competition judges. NFTE advanced business programs support students with mentors, pro bono consulting, and other services to get their businesses operational.

We also offer entrepreneurship programs that work with students outside the classroom. BizCamp is an intensive two-week-long program for teens interested in entrepreneurship. In addition, NFTE teachers run E-Clubs for students interested in further developing their business plans outside of the classroom setting. Some NFTE offices offer youth entrepreneurship conferences that bring together students from around their region to share ideas and learn from seasoned entrepreneurs and business professionals. NFTE is even co-creating an online game to provide entrepreneurship education and business formation opportunities to young people everywhere. Our online Alumni Network connects students with each other, and offers business development resources, competition announcements, and college scholarship information.

Young entrepreneurs across the country and around the world benefit from the opportunities NFTE creates. We operate in 21 states through 11 program offices and 6 licensed partners in the United States. NFTE has 10 international licensed partners to reach young people worldwide, and has translated and adapted student and teacher materials for the local cultures and economies. NFTE develops the leading entrepreneurship curricula for young people and currently has books targeted at youth in middle school, high school and community college, and we are developing a university level entrepreneurship textbook as well. Our curricula are not only used in our program but are widely distributed by our publishing partner, Pearson.

American View: Can you give some examples of successful businesses started by NFTE graduates? What made these businesses successful?

Neelam Patel: Jasmine Lawrence – At age 11 Jasmine Lawrence lost 90% of her hair because of a hair relaxer. She vowed never to use chemicals on her hair again but it was difficult to find natural hair products. After attending a NFTE entrepreneurship program at New York University, Jasmine decided to embrace her experience and the market demand for natural hair products. With NFTE’s support, Jasmine founded Eden BodyWorks and created an all natural line of hair-care products. Today, 17-year-old Jasmine is CEO and founder of EDEN BodyWorks and her small business is thriving. Eden BodyWorks manufactures and distributes all natural hair and skin care products to retailers nationwide. Jasmine’s enterprising efforts have been featured on the Oprah Show and in 2008 named her one of “America’s Best Young Entrepreneurs.”

Jessica Cervantes – Jessica has loved experimenting with recipes and producing new culinary creations ever since her grandmother taught her how to bake. For her business plan, she created a cupcake concept called Popsy Cakes – a cupcake on a pretzel stick – and won first place in NFTE’s National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge in 2008. Now, with the help of Miami entrepreneur Craig Edelman, Popsy Cakes is opening a counter in Miami International Airport. In addition to growing her successful business and launching a storefront, Jessica is a full-time community college student.

Jesus Ballote – Jesus immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a 10-year-old and struggled to adjust to a new culture and an unfamiliar language. With the help of his mentors and the school’s principal, Jesus was able to turn his life around. And of all the work he has done at his school, he is most proud of the business plan he created in his NFTE class. Inspired by his Mexican roots, Jesus created Mayan Mind, a clothing line with handmade designs featuring Mayan and Yucatan embroidery.

American View: How does NFTE help young people stay in school? What other benefits does it provide?

Neelam Patel: The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship presents a simple solution that solves many problems. We inspire young people to succeed in school and in life by seizing educational opportunities and starting their own businesses.

Too many young people drop out of school today, and they struggle to break the cycle of poverty and succeed in life. Nearly 33% of all high school students in the United States drop out. Almost half of all African American, Latino, and Native American high school students drop out. 81% of dropouts report they would have stayed in school if it were relevant to real life.

With the world economy struggling and U.S. unemployment hovering around 10%, entrepreneurs and small businesses are key to economic growth. Small businesses generated 64% of net new jobs over the last 15 years in the U.S. Small businesses contribute more than half of non-farm GDP. Small businesses represent 99% of all employer firms and employ half of all private sector employees domestically. Worldwide, approximately 100 million new businesses are launched each year.

NFTE improves lives through entrepreneurship education, teaching skills relevant to the real world, and motivating students to learn. Students discover an innovative and relevant education that inspires them to attend classes, stay in school, graduate, attend college, and have successful careers. NFTE students learn to look at the world and recognize opportunities for success all around them. They graduate with the problem solving, presentation, and leadership skills necessary for continuing their education and contributing to the economy, whether by running their own businesses or joining the workforce. NFTE students learn how to make money and manage it, enabling them to build strong financial literacy skills.
NFTE discovers, develops and inspires the next generation of entrepreneurs and small business owners. Advanced NFTE students gain experience operating a small business. One study showed that 65% of NFTE graduates started their own business versus 2% of the control group and of those graduates with a business, one third were still operating their business between 6 and 12 months after their NFTE experience.

American View: Why are NFTE programs offered to young people rather than adults who have experience in the business world and are hoping to launch new businesses?

Neelam Patel: There are two reasons why NFTE chooses to work with young people rather than adults. The first is that we believe entrepreneurship education provides young people an alternative to traditional education. Due to its experiential nature, NFTE can impact the number of students that stay in school, and thus increase graduation rates (which is our ultimate mission). The second reason is that NFTE believes that by exposing students to entrepreneurship at an early age, we help to develop young adults with a mindset that is more creative, risk taking, and innovative so they can contribute to the marketplace earlier and more effectively.

American View: What are the qualities of a successful entrepreneur?

Neelam Patel: Self-assessment – evaluating your strengths and weaknesses – is an important part of becoming an entrepreneur. Self-assessment helps you maximize your strong points and strengthen your weaker ones. The key thing to remember is that everybody has strengths and weaknesses. It’s what you do with what you have that counts. Also, entrepreneurs who are self-aware are able to focus on hiring employees with characteristics that complement their own.

An aptitude is a natural ability to do a particular type of work or activity well. For example, you may find math very easy, or you may naturally be good at sports. Aptitudes can sometimes be developed through hard work. An attitude is a way of viewing or thinking about something that affects how you feel about it. Entrepreneurs tend to be people with positive attitudes. Instead of seeing a situation as a problem, they look at it as an opportunity. This helps them find solutions more easily than people who think negatively. Think about your own experience. Positive thinking and talking tends to make you feel happier and have more energy. You feel motivated to take steps toward accomplishing your goals. In contrast, negative thinking and talking tends to make you feel less happy and reduce your energy. You will be much less likely to take action to solve a problem. Even though you didn’t get to choose which aptitudes you’d inherit, you do have the power to choose your attitude.

An entrepreneur needs to have self-esteem. Entrepreneurs need to view themselves in a positive way. A positive attitude can make the difference between failure and success. Someone with a strong aptitude but a negative attitude will probably achieve less than someone who has less natural ability but a positive attitude. Throughout history, entrepreneurs have proved that thoughts have power. But only you can ultimately decide who you will become. No one is born with all the characteristics needed to be a successful entrepreneur. But if you keep a positive attitude and believe in yourself, you can develop many of them. In the following list, notice the personality traits you already possess. Then focus on the ones you think you need to develop.


    • Courage: A willingness to take risks in spite of possible losses.


    • Creativity: Inventing new ways of doing things; thinking outside the box.


    • Curiosity: The desire to learn and ask questions.


    • Determination: Refusing to quit in spite of obstacles.


    • Discipline: The ability to stay focused and follow a schedule to meet deadlines.


    • Empathy: Being sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others.


    • Enthusiasm: Being passionate about something; the ability to see problems as opportunities.


    • Flexibility: The ability to adapt to new situations; a willingness to change.


    • Honesty: A commitment to being truthful and sincere with others.


    • Patience: Recognizing that most goals are not reached overnight.


    • Responsibility: Being accountable for your decisions and actions; not passing the buck.


American View: How are NFTE programs funded? Are the NFTE teachers volunteers?

Neelam Patel: NFTE is a not for profit organization. We rely on the generosity of corporations, foundations and individuals to keep our programs running across the country and around the world. Volunteers also play a crucial role in NFTE’s programs. You can share your knowledge and love of business in a variety of ways – by running a workshop in your area of expertise, becoming a business plan coach to help students fine-tune their business plans, or being a judge at one of our business plan competitions. All of these opportunities require minimal time commitments but can make a huge difference in the life of a young person. NFTE teachers are mostly volunteers who love the field and are dedicated to making schools and education better.

American View: What is the National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge? Who were the winners this year and what sort of prizes did they win? Did they have an opportunity to meet President Obama?

Neelam Patel: Every NFTE student is required to create an original business plan. Students develop their plans in the classroom throughout a semester or year-long NFTE course. The business plan is the vehicle through which they learn and apply the business/financial concepts that NFTE teaches, while developing business ideas based on their own special interests and talents. By presenting their plans at business plan competitions, students have a unique opportunity to practice their public-speaking skills, gain professional advice on their plans from competition judges, and receive well-earned public recognition as well as seed capital to invest in their businesses and/or their education.

Students from NFTE’s 11 program offices and 6 domestic licensed partners cross the country compete in classroom and/or school-wide competitions each spring. These competitions lead to regional business plan competitions, where the top qualifier from each school competes in the more prestigious semi-finals and finals. The top students from around the country move on to compete in the national competition. They spend many hours between the regional competitions in the spring until the nationals in the fall meeting with their NFTE mentors and business plan coaches to hone and perfect their plans and presentations.
On Tuesday, October 5, 2010, 31 individual NFTE youth entrepreneurs, representing 28 businesses, competed in the fifth annual Oppenheimer Funds/NFTE National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge in New York City. The challenge consisted of three separate rounds of competition, starting in the morning with the preliminary round, which led to the semi-final round in the afternoon. The top three winners of the semi-finals then competed in the evening’s final round, in front of an audience of more than 300 NFTE supporters and invited guests. The grand prize for the winner was $10,000. The runner-up received $5,000, and the third-place winner received $3,500. A fourth participant received $2,500 as the winner of an Online Elevator Pitch contest that included all October 5 participants and ran the month before the challenge, sponsored by E*Trade. The winners all met President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. on October 12, 2010.

American View: Are NFTE programs offered in countries other than the U.S.? If so, are they adapted for the local cultural and educational needs?

Neelam Patel: The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE)’s licensed programs are an integral part of our growth in areas beyond the reach of NFTE program offices in both the United States and in foreign countries. Licensees are established non-profit/charitable organizations, educational institutions, community-based organizations, or government agencies that share our mission of providing programs that inspire young people from low-income communities to stay in school, to recognize business opportunities, and to plan for successful futures. Licensees are supported by NFTE through ongoing program support, assistance with adapting curricula, training for educators, and our global awards program for students and teachers.

NFTE is currently in 14 countries. Yes, programs and curriculum are adapted for local cultural and educational needs.

American View: Could NFTE be brought to Japan? How could NFTE programs be customized to fit the Japanese culture and educational system?

Neelam Patel: Yes, with the right partner, NFTE can be brought to Japan. My understanding is that Japan is now looking for ways to help their youth be more innovative and creative. This is because Japan would like to also have the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. I think that in order to this, Japan must ignite the entrepreneurial spirit in their youth. All young people have it; sometimes they just need help finding it. NFTE is very customizable. For Japan, I would suggest to incorporate entrepreneurship education within the school system for students ages 13-18. So as they learn basic reading, writing, and mathematics curricula, they can become aware of how these skills can be used in the real world through business creation and innovation. Culturally, I think NFTE is a great fit for Japan. Now that the world is truly becoming a global community, young people everywhere are more aware of what is happening around the world. Whereas students in the generation before them may have looked only within their community to find resources and be competitive, this generation of students is much more savvy. They want to compete and be a part of the global marketplace. NFTE can set Japanese students up for success in this global community.

American View: Could you offer some advice for young people in Japan who are interested in starting their own businesses?

Neelam Patel: Yes, here are some tips.


    1. Don’t let anyone dampen your willpower to aspire.


    1. Take action. As strong as a dream may be, it will stay a dream unless you work to make it a reality.


    1. Think short term and long term. Make a plan and stick with it.


    1. Get professional help and seek advice from experts in your field.


    1. Be assertive and speak up!


    1. Study hard. Think of your company as something you’re always learning more about. Read up on your industry. Follow publications and websites. Attend free seminars and ask questions.


    1. Take initiative and see it through.


    1. Accept criticism. Use all feedback to your advantage.


    1. Do what you love. Launch a business that is fun for you and one that you are passionate about.


    1. Others may tell you that you’ll never make it. Don’t believe them, you will!


Neelam Patel joined NFTE in 2006. She has over 10 years of experience in the field of education, professional development, and curriculum design. Neelam’s current responsibilities at NFTE include the creation of text and digital-based entrepreneurship curricula, managing the unit responsible for supporting and creating NFTE’s program elements, and providing the organization with short- and long-term programmatic strategic goals. She oversees NFTE’s curriculum design, teacher professional development, alumni services, and research initiatives.