In a sleek, light-filled conference room at the world headquarters of Goldman Sachs, 20 young entrepreneurs prepare to make the most important presentations of their professional lives. The early morning meeting is the culmination of months of work. Dressed to the nines and well rehearsed, they cast their eyes nervously about the room. Facing them are panels of business luminaries armed with scratch pads and coffee cups.
These would-be entrepreneurs are not tech whiz kids or new M.B.A.s. They are high school girls, most of them Latina or African-American, from distressed communities that are far removed from the upper reaches of the corporate world. To make it to this room on Wall Street, the girls had to beat out teams from around the country by designing the best plans for starting a company. The four winning teams were awarded a free trip to New York City in July to participate in a one-week crash course in capitalism: Girls Inc. Corporate Camp for Entrepreneurs.
E Camp, as it is known, is the brainchild of Girls Inc., a national research, education and advocacy organization. The 145-year-old nonprofit was founded during the Industrial Revolution to help young women who migrated from rural areas to work in textile mills and factories. Today Girls Inc. programs and efforts are focused on the problems that continue to limit the aspirations of girls, especially those who grow up poor. Three-quarters of the group's members come from families with incomes of $30,000 or less, and nearly 70% are minorities. Half of them come from single-parent households.
While the plight of women in Third World countries is certainly dire, girls in the U.S. still face some very vexing problems. Research shows, for example, that American girls in families headed by single mothers who have dropped out of high school are also at high risk for school failure, poverty, domestic violence and poor health. And conditions may be getting worse. Teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S., a bellwether of girls' long-term prospects, are once again on the rise after years of decline.
Girls Inc. programs teach young women how to resist peer pressure, respect their bodies and their health, prevent teen pregnancy and excel in math, science and technology. The nonprofit's ''economic literacy'' curriculum teaches its young participants how to manage money, while older girls learn about the global economy and how to invest wisely. E Camp, which is sponsored by the Goldman Sachs Foundation, is the crown jewel of this program.
For these young entrepreneurs the quest to win a coveted place at E Camp began in January. Interested teams filled out preapplications describing their business ideas, and Girls Inc. staffers critiqued each team's submission before sending it back. The teams then had to create comprehensive business plans that included a marketing strategy, sales projections, startup costs and a funding plan. The competition is designed to cultivate a strong work ethic, and many of the teams worked every day during spring break to meet the deadline. In late May the names of the winning teams were announced:
--BOVE from Denver designed a line of customizable tote bags--BOVE stands for ''Bags of Vibrant Expression''--with a secret pocket for tampons and other things girls don't want boys to see.
--Breaking Boundaries from Memphis created four Trivial Pursuit-style board games that help teens talk about personal subjects, including Risky Business, a game about sexuality, and Crazy Money, a game promoting money management. (Players move around the board trying to save money to go to the prom; if they make an ill-advised decision, they stay home.)
--Teenage Touch of Omaha designed a miniservice beauty salon on-site at the local Girls Inc. office and offered the mothers of young girls reduced-price hair braiding (with or without beads) and manicures for their daughters.
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--Water Girls of Carpinteria, Calif., a drought-stricken farming town in the southern corner of Santa Barbara County, designed a calendar to help families conserve water.
During the first part of E Camp the girls were immersed in a series of workshops on accounting, marketing and how to hone presentation skills. A few days later, with the help of their coaches--professional women with active careers--the campers made oral presentations that incorporated what they'd learned.
The workshops were punctuated with field trips to meet female entrepreneurs and included an evening reception at the waterfront penthouse of Girls Inc. Chief Executive Joyce Roche, where the out-of-towners got their first glimpses of the twinkling lights that illuminate New York harbor.
The E Campers also learned how to present themselves as professionals. A fashion expert gave the girls advice on business attire and offered tips on choosing clothes that flatter their body types. An expert in public speaking taught them techniques for overcoming shyness and the importance of body language. They learned how to stand in a relaxed yet commanding way, how to maintain eye contact with an audience and how to strike the right vocal tone--forceful, but not aggressive.
The feedback the coaches delivered also helped the girls to confront one of the professional world's greatest challenges: how to accept and incorporate constructive criticism when one's efforts have fallen short. Not reacting in a defensive way requires maturity. As 17-year-old Water Girl Crystal Santana said, ''We had to grow up as people.''
Image: Miley Cyrus, 16
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