News: CJ Exclusives

Program Instills Entrepreneurial Spirit

Free Enterprise Leadership Challenge sponsors week-long programs

The business team was working out its plan to open a fast-food franchise in an overseas market. Although their target company offered a popular menu, it maintained its ethical reputation by keeping a tight control on franchise operators. That could present issues later in the process, they conceded, but it might not be a showstopper.

Of course, it will be a while before this Chick-Fil-A opens in Moscow; the business partners were all under 18 years old, and the exercise was part of a weeklong summer program that introduces high school students to the concepts of entrepreneurship, foreign and domestic trade, and business ethics, under the overarching banner of free enterprise.

Now in its 11th year, the Free Enterprise Leadership Challenge is a project of the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, east of Charlotte. Wingate University sponsors one session, while another is offered at Campbell University in Buies Creek. The cost of the program, including room and board, is entirely underwritten by private and corporate donors, with students providing only their transportation and a nominal activity fee.

The president of the Jesse Helms Center, John Dodd, first envisioned the program when he was a member of Sen. Helms’ staff in the 1980s. Given the task of identifying potential major donors and supporters, Dodd met numerous successful entrepreneurs and business leaders. The encounters left a lasting impression on him and gave him a desire to communicate the spirit and excitement of free enterprise to students.

The opportunity came in 1994 when Dodd was chosen to lead the new Jesse Helms Center. “Senator Helms gave the charge to me, ‘I don’t want a dusty museum or a mausoleum to Jesse Helms. I want you to develop programs for young people,’” Dodd said. Dodd led the first year’s program himself, then hired Marilyn Robertson, a retired business professor, to direct the Challenge, starting in 1996.

“I know that every kid is not going to become an entrepreneur, and probably most won’t,” Dodd said, “but you don’t have to put everything at risk to think and act entrepreneurially. In the era of globalization, everyone has to think outside the box.

“This is experiential learning,” he said. “Kids can develop ideas when they’re doing things; it can really drive home and change people’s lives.”

The experience is under way from the first hours on campus. Besides the Virtual Trade Mission, students meet with business and community leaders, write essays on ethics, and take backstage tours of successful endeavors such as the Charlotte FOX Network affiliate and Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers and one of the nation’s few privately-owned professional sports arenas.

The centerpiece project of the Challenge, though, is the opportunity for students to form their own business, and they go through a crash course in what it takes to launch a successful venture.

“They elect a board, president, treasurer, and so forth, then they write a business plan,” said Derek Skinner, who arranges the speakers and staff for the program. “They write a mission statement, a budget, and a marketing plan; their goal is to make a profit by the end of the week. They’ll be providing real products or real services, for real money.”

Victoria Easter, a student at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Mooresville, led a company that sold concessions at events during the week. Although she conceded her firm didn’t make the most money, she said, “the practical lessons I took away were extremely helpful: learning how to manage funds, make choices that your business would best benefit from, working with others, sorting out legal documents.”

“It makes a packed week,” she said.

Javan Norris, a homeschooled student from Stanfield, said his experience was similar. Although unsure what to expect from FELC, Javan said, it was “a fun team experience.” His company produced a talent show for the end of the week, and while their expenses ate into their final profits, “it was a right decent success … about fifty people from other teams came to the event, which probably made it the biggest company project that week.” He said he hopes to return for another year.

Skinner said that the students have always managed to end up in the black. “In all the years the program’s been running, no company has ever lost money.” Turning a profit is not the only goal, though.

“Many people don’t realize that we really focus on philanthropy and ‘giving back’,” Skinner said. “The two sessions this year made a total of over $1,400, and the students were free to divide that up among themselves or do whatever they wanted with it. In both sessions this year, though, the students gave 100 percent of their proceeds to charity.”

That principled approach to business is the hallmark of the program. Dodd is careful to point out that America’s Judeo-Christian consensus provided a rich philosophical soil for free enterprise to grow. Unfortunately, many developing nations lack the moral and ethical climate that distinguishes between no-holds-barred capitalism and business success with a conscience, he said.

“Look at what has happened in Russia,” Dodd said. “They said, ‘Let’s have capitalism,’ but they have no moral underpinning to it; communism destroyed it all. Now they have ‘capitalism,’ but they’ve had problems with it, and the people are beginning to lose their freedoms again.”

A number of international students have taken part in the Challenge, sometimes sponsored by American embassies in their countries. Dodd presented the program in Uruguay three years running, and a Mexican university has a “franchise” to operate the Challenge in 13 Mexican high schools. Both Dodd and Helms have a long interest in Latin America, and they believe it’s important to take this message abroad.

Dodd said the realization that capitalism can also be ethical is an eye-opener to some of the international students. “The kids’ eyes light up when you present this material,” he said. “There’s a win-win where all parties benefit — where labor wins, and business wins, and the government wins. The rule of law is there.”

“What I say to people in other countries is that we don’t claim divine intelligence. We claim a great blessing which we inherited from our ancestors and the culture of Western civilization,” he said.

Hal Young is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.