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Entrepreneurs try to pass torch at Kidpreneurs conference

May 9, 1997

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) _ Children at Black Enterprise magazine’s entrepreneurs conference played a special game of store on Friday. Players who own the stores are called ``not us″ and customers, who lose all their money to the storekeepers, are ``us.″

It’s just a game, but like other activities at the children’s parallel Kidpreneurs Konference, it drives home a serious point: If you don’t own the business, you’ll forever be powerless.

And that’s a message that more and more blacks are heeding. Entrepreneurs big and small, academics and educators attending the second-annual conference this week see owning businesses as the way of the future.

``No matter which direction I go in, I come back to the idea that the only viable vehicle to address our economic problems is entrepreneurship,″ said Thomas Boston, a professor of economics at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Entrepreneurism among blacks isn’t new, he said. But for years, the drive toward economic gain took a back seat to political goals. Now ``it’s coming back to the fore,″ he said Thursday on the opening day of the three-day conference.

Certainly, the numbers speak of a growing interest. The number of black-owned firms grew 46 percent since 1987 to 620,912, far outstripping the 26 percent rise in all businesses in the same period, according to the Census Bureau.

For the most part, the businesses remain small. Revenues for black-owned businesses average $52,000, compared with $193,000 for all U.S. firms. Yet, sales for the top 100 black-owned firms, as tallied by Black Enterprise, grew 11.8 percent in 1996, exceeding the 9.9 revenue jump of Fortune 500 firms.

``The state of black business is sound and expanding,″ said Black Enterprise publisher and founder Earl G. Graves in his opening remarks to the conference’s more than 1,000 entrepreneurs. ``The toddler has grown to be an adult, and it’s an adult to be reckoned with.″

Many black business owners come to the field after hitting a glass ceiling in corporations or after a downsizing. When Boston surveyed 300 Atlanta-area black business owners recently, he found that half were former managers or administrators _ a finding echoed in Census Bureau data.

``We’re tired of sitting in the back seat,″ said Dr. Kevin Williams, a doctor with an MBA who was teaching some of the 7- to 10-year-olds at the Kidpreneurs Konference.

For those who see business ownership as a way to future economic parity with whites, learning early is all the better.

``It’s a kind of a passing of the torch for many African-Americans″ to send their children to Kidpreneurs while they attend the entrepreneurs meeting, says Patricia Crocker, a Black Enterprise manager who oversees the program. ``We see a lot of demand from our (magazine) audience for this.″

She said the three-day program sold out weeks in advance this year. Some 150 children signed up, compared with 100 last year, for Weepreneurs (ages 4 to 6), Futurepreneurs (ages 7 to 10), Junior Executives (ages 11 to 13) and Future CEOs (ages 14 to 17). Most are children of participants, but a few are local schoolchildren.

During the conference, the older children develop their own business plans for companies they invent. At the end, the best plan gets presented to Graves. As well, some went to Wendy’s fast-food restaurants Friday to learn about franchises.

``It’s fun, but it’s more learning than fun,″ said 10-year-old Ciara Robinson of Alexandria, Va., after one session. Still, she said she’d like to be an entrepreneur because ``it’d be nice to be the one in charge.″

Although some at the conference, which is also sponsored by NationsBank, criticized the program for aiming only to middle-class children, organizers hope to expand. Black Enterprise hopes to market the program to parents, schools conferences of all types or create stand-alone Kidpreneur summer camps in future.

Most black children ``can’t even fathom owning anything like a business,″ said Kidpreneur instructor Sondra Sowell-Scott, assistant director of Temple University’s Small Business Center. ``We’ve taught our children to go to school so they could get a good job.″

Joel Sylvain, a 25-year-old Kidpreneur teacher and an entrepreneur in New York City, agreed.

``Growing up in Brooklyn, the only black person we saw in business was the token booth clerk in the subway,″ he said. ``And he sure didn’t own the Metropolitan Transit Authority.″

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