Learning to Run a Business by Running a Business

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Last month, 2,500 people from across the nation and nine countries, including Bulgaria and Indonesia, gathered for a trade show at the Park Avenue Armory on Manhattan’s East Side. Working for companies that ranged from software development to tattoo studios, they hobnobbed and made deals.

What made this different from the hundreds of other trade shows in the city each year? All of the participants were high school students who represented 153 schools from the United States and abroad.

They are students enrolled in business classes that teach them how to run companies through simulation. Those classes are provided by Virtual Enterprises International, part of a network in which students create and run their own -- though usually imaginary -- businesses.

The program began 15 years ago, started by Iris Blanc, a former assistant principal at Tottenville High School in Staten Island. Ms. Blanc first saw classes being taught through the running of pseudo-businesses during a visit to Austria.

_EJC8321Elbert Chu for SchoolBook The booths for the businesses created by Fort Hamilton High School students.

When she returned to New York City, she helped local superintendents start a pilot program with seven public schools. Now Virtual Enterprises connects some 10,000 American students online who are learning business skills and interacting with schools from 42 countries.

“We create an environment that doesn’t say school,” Ms. Blanc said. “The idea is for students to take ownership of their education.” She refers to the daily classes as “business labs” because students attend the class dressed in suits, and rooms are equipped to resemble a company office.

At a time when there is lingering neglect -- but improved appreciation -- for vocational education, Virtual Enterprises is filling a niche at its participating schools.

It has support that cuts across the usual fields of education battle. “This just shows that when we put aside politics, we see the amazing work we can accomplish together,” said Sterling Roberson, a vice president of the United Federation of Teachers.

The program also has a pipeline of money and the enthusiastic participation of its students.

Every March, the culmination of the program is the international trade show, which includes a national competition. Finalists from regional competitions must defend their business plan in a 12-minute presentation and eight-minute Q. & A. session with a panel of business professionals.

Ms. Blanc, dressed in a dark suit, said this was the first year the event was too large for the Armory, and she had to turn schools away. “That makes me sad,” Ms. Blanc said. She is not sure the organization, run by the department of education, can afford a larger space at the Javits Center.

_EJC8294Elbert Chu for SchoolBook The floor of the Virtual Enterprises International trade show at the Park Avenue Armory in March.

Crowded and noisy, the trade show felt like the running of the wildebeests meets the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. There was a constant jostle, and a babble and buzz of sales pitching and deal making. Mylar balloons floated above booths. Fliers littered the floor. Some students wore costumes or handed out promo giveaways.

At a virtual company called Bon Voyage Travel, which sells tour packages, six employees wore matching outfits of black slacks and red short-sleeve collar shirts.

The chief financial officer, Alan Oms, 18, said he used to bully the vice president of accounting, Benjamin Zhao, 17.

_EJC8304Elbert Chu for SchoolBook Taking care of business at the Bon Voyage Travel Booth at the Virtual Enterprises International trade show in March.

Both now are seniors at Fort Hamilton High School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and forged a friendship working on Bon Voyage. They devoted after-school and late nights to develop their 20-page business plan, which won the team first place and new iPads.

“My moral codes have changed when I learned work ethic,” said Alan, who plans to attend New York City College of Technology to study accounting in the fall.

But only 50 city schools participate in the program, with three more planned for the fall. The start up cost -- $15,000 to $20,000 -- is not the problem. There is federal money available for career training. And the New York Life Foundation recently awarded Virtual Enterprises a $1 million grant, to help it reach other big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami.

Some schools also have the support of real businesses. Brooklyn Technical High School, which will add the program in 2013, wants to start an engineering company, and seeks a real company to be its partner.

The problem, Ms. Blanc said, is getting principals to make the commitment of time, space and staff. Teachers need extra training, classes are 90 minutes every day, students need computers and some schools provide cubicles so “departments” can be separated.

“Career and technical education is experiencing a rebirth,” said David Fischer, a senior director in the office of post-secondary readiness with the Department of Education. “The question is: Do schools understand the value?”

In an education system ruled by standardized tests, the success of this program is hard to measure. But Joe Delaney, a 67-year-old retiree of Deloitte LLP, the accounting firm, has mentored Fort Hamilton students, and seen results.

“This works,” Delaney said. “Thirteen kids have gone to work for Deloitte.”

Zhen Huang, 20, graduated in 2010 from Fort Hamilton and said his stint as C.F.O. at a Virtual Enterprises company motivated him to work towards an accounting degree at Baruch College. He is an intern at the tax department for Goldman Sachs.

“Let’s just say it definitely catches eyes on my resume when it said C.F.O. on the bottom,” Mr. Huang said.

Mary Grace Alfredo, a business teacher for 12 years at Fort Hamilton, said students with an interest in business sign up for the class as an elective. But they must work independently -- something that stymies some students. Many come to her for direction, or at least a textbook.

“I tell them, ‘I don’t know, it’s your business. Where do you want to go?’” Ms. Alfredo said.