Training youth to become entrepreneurs

Sylvia McKinney

Sylvia McKinney

Sylvia Watts McKinney is the first executive director of Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), Philadelphia. As the executive director, Sylvia oversees the program office’s overall management, strategic, external affairs and fundraising efforts; develops working relationships and partnerships with local and national stakeholders to promote the vision and mission of NFTE; and builds and maintains a dynamic volunteer program.  In other words, NFTE helps in training youth to become entrepreneurs.

Sylvia holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of South Carolina and Masters of City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is a graduate of the prestigious Getty Foundation Museum Management Institute of Berkeley, CA. She was also an adjunct teacher at the Commonwealth School in Boston. She has served on a number volunteer board of directors, both nonprofit and quasi-governmental organizations.

I came into contact with Sylvia when I began to volunteer for the NFTE, teaching entrepreneurship classes for dynamic young boys and girls in Philadelphia high schools.  Always full of passion, high energy and witty insights, Sylvia has kindly provided some valuable insights, which I now present in the form of a Q and A here:

What do you think is an intrinsic attribute of an entrepreneur and how does NFTE help nurture this attribute?

Sylvia: The ability to see a product or service or set of circumstances in a new way is what distinguishes entrepreneurs from the rest of the world.

NFTE offers its students a new perspective on their futures, works with them to build skills required to take their idea from just a dream into a workable business plan and beyond. We believe that every student is a potential entrepreneur and invest in their potential. If they want to build a business, we’ll be a resource and help them get started.

NFTE entrepreneurial program transforms students’ lives by not only unlocking more opportunities, but also by revealing strengths students never knew they had.

What, in your experience, are the other personal qualities of an entrepreneur that are required to build a successful entrepreneurship?

Sylvia: Entrepreneurs should:

a. Know what they want – intense focus on achieving their objectives is a hallmark.  I always use the example of Steve Jobs who was not content with creating great products.  He wanted to push the envelope to creating awesome products.  That kind of focus is what I am talking about.

b. Secondly, love what they do – as an entrepreneur, you are going off the beaten track, and are on your own.  You don’t have the shelter of a job at a big corporation, and are facing a high failure rate.  So you better love what you do, or create a business out of something that you love.

c. Lastly, know how to find like-minded people – your idea may be yours when you conceive it, or feel like you can translate it into a business, but sooner or later you need a team to realize the idea.

You mentioned that the NFTE program helps “unlock more opportunities”.  Can you elaborate on that?

Sylvia: High school students either drop out, or graduate and move on to college.  Students that are enrolled in the NFTE program gain a whole set of knowledge on setting up and running a business.  They participate in business plan competitions which calls for presenting their plans to experienced judges.  The winners refine their plans and present at the next level.  This goes from region to state to nationals.  At every stage there is prize money involved.  This year, the national winner took away $25,000 as a first prize.  More than the cash, there is huge exposure and the potential to really build the business.  This is serious opportunity.  NFTE provides this exposure along with the coaching to go with it. 

Throughout the process, the student develops confidence, good understanding of business fundamentals, the art of presenting their idea (selling) and working to “realize their dream”. 

What are the skills that the NFTE curriculum imparts to students to become successful entrepreneurs?


a.       Confidence

b.      Logistics

c.       Communication

d.      Focus

(Our note: The term ”logistics” can be expanded to be understood as “execution”.  A successful entrepreneur, much like an effective leader has to excel in execution.  As an entrepreneur, you may have laid out the best plans and strategy, and impressively generated investments.  But to become successful, you have to execute brilliantly.)

What are the parallels you see between entrepreneurs and leaders?  Or how is an entrepreneur like a leader?

Sylvia:  An entrepreneur is very much like a leader.  Building and running a business means you have to lead teams, manage uncertainty, ambiguity and risk, manage your employees, work with customers, present to investors, understand your product and market, make decisions, etc.

Entrepreneurs like leaders, must have focus, a clear understanding of what they want to achieve or build, high self-confidence and have the ability to engage with people.

You need to have good leadership qualities to succeed as an entrepreneur.  NFTE helps to build these qualities along the way.

You’ve achieved so much already, Sylvia.  What is your secret to success?  Is there any technique or something that you’ve deliberately practiced to hone your leadership skill?

Sylvia:  My secret sauce is to appreciate the journey.  Learning should be a lifelong experience and teaching is contagious.

What are the things that you try as a leader to avoid?

Sylvia:  I can think of two things: Complicated problems with easy solutions; simple problems with complicated approaches.

In the first case, through experience I know that easy solutions mean that I must have missed out a big part.  If a problem had a simple solution, someone would have found it.  The problem has become complicated is because there was no simple solution.

Conversely, the term “analysis-paralysis” comes to mind.  I have seen a number of times when people over-think and complicate things to address a simple problem.  I say, knock it off, and move on to the next challenging problem.

If you had the time and resources to develop just one more skill to add to your repertoire, what would it be?

Sylvia:  I have always had a fascination for languages.  Learning a language means immersing yourself in a whole different culture, learning a lot about it and exercising your mind.  I would say the one thing I’d like to add to my skill-set is learning more languages.  I want to learn by living in those countries for a period of six months or so and not just through a software package.  By living in those countries and mingling with those people, I would learn a lot about those lands as well.

Great thoughts, and if I may add, that could also be a great change of scene for you!

Many thanks Sylvia, best wishes and see you soon!

Image: (c)