Scott Dilloff – Volunteering

Why I chose to volunteer with NFTE

I recently volunteered with an organization called Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), a non-profit dedicated to bringing entrepreneurship curriculum into the classroom. The goal is “to prevent dropouts and improve academic performance” among at-risk students by teaching them content they find relevant to the real world. The program uses project-based learning, tasking students with building a business plan from scratch. NFTE essentially treats students as customers, delivering them useful, interesting curriculum, thereby hoping to sell them on the idea that school is worth their while. It is an interesting model and for someone like me, who is pursuing an entrepreneurial career path, it also turns out to be the perfect volunteer opportunity.

The approach

The issues the organization aims to address are dropouts and poor academic performance. The premise being that students make their own decisions about whether they stay in school and how hard they work (which obviously affects performance). NFTE aims to offer content that would increase students’ motivation to do both. There is research that shows it works, and though I am not personally qualified to evaluate it, I definitely buy in.

If NFTE’s premise is right, that we need to “sell” students on staying in school, then the task at-hand is to convince them what they are learning is relevant and they aren’t better off spending those hours doing something else, such as working (a trade-off I imagine at least some low-income students consider).I think we can all relate to the idea that being told we have to do something for a vague or arbitrary reason tends to negatively affect our motivation. The NFTE curriculum helps answer the question all students ask at some point, “why do I need to know this?” It is easy to make the case to students that the NFTE curriculum is worthwhile if for no other reason than it’s about how to make money, which is something we all need.

NFTE’s curriculum focuses on business education, but it has broader applications as well. The main argument I have heard in favor of a liberal arts education is that “it teaches you how to think”. I believe the same is true for the curriculum that NFTE teaches, and it is easier to draw a line from their subject matter to the real world. Developing a business plan from scratch requires students to use their imagination, to think about problems and needs, come up with ideas and solutions, create a plan, develop a budget, and think through logistics, all of which are helpful skills in business and in life. From NFTE’s website: “By teaching the entrepreneurial mindset, NFTE provides young people with tools and attitudes to overcome adversity and address future personal, economic, community and global challenges.”

Consistent with NFTE’s theme of teaching real world content, a key component of the program is to bring volunteers into the classroom to share their experience. This allows students to hear it straight from practitioners, adding further credibility and authenticity to the subject matter. At the end of the course, the students have a chance to compete for seed capital through a series of business plan competitions.

As someone who questioned the value of school on more than one occasion, I think NFTE’s approach of teaching real world curriculum is right on track. In addition to NFTE being a great opportunity to give back for more altruistic reasons, it also offers existing and aspiring entrepreneurs the chance to hone their skills, build their networks, and keep things in perspective.

“While we teach, we learn.”

NFTE’s curriculum aims to increase students’ motivation to stay in school. Similarly, we adults also need motivation to take time away from our busy schedules and spend it volunteering. There are many reasons to volunteer – it feels good, it is a way to meet new people, it can help you develop new skills, to fulfill a sense of civic responsibility, etc. Those are all valid reasons, but I think making the time becomes easier if we do something we are interested in and that ideally aligns with our own goals.

My experience with NFTE involved helping tenth grade students think through various elements of their business plans. I found myself explaining concepts such as market research, market sizing, segmentation, positioning, selling, budgeting, lean operating principles, scale, and so on. It reminded me of two ideas I had heard before, that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and that being able to explain something simply is a true test of how well you understand it. Working with the students on their business plans was good practice, it forced me to organize my thoughts and refresh my understanding of concepts I hadn’t articulated in a while that are relevant to any business, including my own.

On the day I volunteered, I met two entrepreneurs who described reasons similar to my own for getting involved (combination of wanting to give back plus alignment), and I originally found out about NFTE through my friend Jonathan Miller, founder of Element Bars (Shark Tank), GetCheapBooks.com, and other companies. NFTE attracts people who are interested in entrepreneurship, and therefore offers a great opportunity to network with other like-minded entrepreneurial people in your area.

Based on my initial experience, I would highly encourage any business person looking for a volunteer opportunity to consider NFTE. By creating a platform that not only helps students, but also provides compelling reasons for volunteers to get involved, NFTE’s model offers the potential for a virtuous cycle of community engagement, an exciting and motivating idea in its own right.

For more information visit: www.nfte.com

Scott Dilloff is CEO of Charm City Cakes, the business made famous on the Food Network show, “Ace of Cakes”. The brand operates two custom cake studios, a DIY cake-decorating studio (Duff’s Cakemix), and a licensing business with an array of packaged foods and consumer products, including ice cream, boxed cake mix, bakeware and decorating supplies. The products are sold in mass-market retailers nationwide, including Wal-Mart, Target, Michaels, and several grocery chains. He lives in Los Angeles.