Originally created 07/12/98

Student campers get down to business



BALTIMORE -- Tyese Thornton was on the phone, making it hard for people to get through to her boss.

"Hello, may I speak to the bank president?" the caller asked.

"No, you may not," she barked back. "He's very busy!"

When asked why she drove such a hard bargain, Thornton said, "Because you have to be hard and real in the business world."

Had this been a real phone conversation, Thornton, a 15-year-old student at Dunbar High School, would have been a hard-to-please, no-nonsense executive assistant.

But it was merely a skit focusing on real-life issues in the business world, performed by students in a class at the Reginald F. Lewis Summer BizCamp at Morgan State University.

Thornton, who wants to own a soul food restaurant, was one of 22 teen-agers at the two-week entrepreneurial camp. She said the camp has taught her to be tough, precise and to the point.

"I've learned a lot as far as how to handle business and money," she said. "We're also learning that if you stick with it and believe you can do it, you can do it."

In its second year, the camp fosters a sense of entrepreneurship and business savvy in students, most of whom go to Dunbar. During the program, students create business plans, use their talents to form enterprising ideas and study the methods of past successes in the business world, such as Andrew Carnegie, Barry Gordy and Liz Claiborne.

The camp is named after Baltimore native Reginald Lewis, a Dunbar graduate who pulled off one of the largest leveraged buyouts in history 10 years ago, purchasing the international food conglomerate, TLC Beatrice International Holdings, and becoming one of the 400 wealthiest Americans.

His wife, Loida Nicolas Lewis, whose informal discussion with students is the high point of activities at the camp, took over the company after his death in 1993. His spirit lives on through the youths, she said.

"There are many Reginald Lewises out there just waiting to blossom," Lewis said. "I thought the best way to carry on the legacy was to teach young people, most fittingly from Dunbar, how to thrive when trying to start their own businesses."

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Calvin Thompson, 15, a Dunbar student, said there are three things about Reginald Lewis that he plans to apply to his life.

"First, he was a three-sports star at Dunbar," Thompson said. "He got into college, too, without an application and, last, I like how he never gave up."

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The program was created in conjunction with the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, or NFTE (pronounced nifty), Dunbar High and Morgan State, where Lewis was also a student.

"It's important to get in the trenches and teach this stuff to kids," said Julie Silard, facilitator of the BizCamp and director of NFTE for the greater Washington area. "We put on programs like this in at least 15 cities, and I have to say that this camp is the model for what we are trying to do nationwide."

Daryn Dodson, 19, of Washington, D.C., is a graduate of a 1996 NFTE summer program at Howard University. He was inspired by the camp and returned to be a student teacher before attending Duke University in the fall.

"One of the great things is that we have panelists who are really out in the business world helping to teach us," he said. "I met Mr. Lewis' stepfather, Jean Fugett, and he was really supportive. It's good that big business people can give back. That's why we are here -- because Mr. Lewis gave back."

Students and staff aren't the only people satisfied with the program.

"This is a rock for the children," said Natalie Spiller, whose daughter Janice has participated in similar programs and sold backpacks at various festivals last summer.

"They get all this knowledge in only two weeks, and it's phenomenal. Parents should really inquire about programs like this as they grow because this learning is the foundation for growth."

In Marilyn Hollis' class, the students learned about the business food chain, which starts at manufacturing and ends at service businesses, with wholesalers and retailers in between.

"Here we are distinguishing the different phases of business," Hollis, a NFTE teacher from Washington, D.C., told students. "You'll need to use whatever skill you have within this frame, so that you won't be vulnerable when the economy becomes shaky."

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Martharine Scott, head of the business department at Dunbar, which will soon be named after Reginald Lewis, said training for educators in this area is a crash course -- just like the camp is for the students.

"We got background training up in New York, and it's all cramming, but it's so beneficial to everyone, especially the kids, and it builds self-esteem," she said. "That's important."

Tyese Thornton plans to use her cooking talents as the basis for her business plans.

"I can cook pretty well, and I came to the program to get a focus and hopefully I can find that focus," Tyese said.

"I admire Mr. Lewis because he was hard working, intelligent, persistent and tough -- all the things I plan to be."