Innovations Case Narrative:
Making Cents International
One evening in 1997, I sat in a shack in Khayelitsha Township outside of Cape Town, South Africa, and looked around at the ten adults who were about to be my students in a microenterprise course. Some were unemployed, others were just starting businesses, most were illiterate—and all were struggling mightily. The mix of eagerness and uncertainty I felt was reflected back to me in the eyes of my students.
Putting my feelings aside, I dove into running the business simulation, describing a virtual marketplace in which the participants operate fictitious businesses. Things started a bit slowly, but within half an hour, we were all engaged and connected—and excited. These women and men grasped and increasingly mastered the interplay of costing and pricing, analyzing the risks of selling on credit, and the benefits of developing a negotiation strategy. We were all involved in this virtual marketplace. Participants bartered and boasted as they finalized sales and tallied their profits.
The debrief was momentous for me. After only two hours of interactive training, the participants confidently demonstrated a deep understanding of micro-business management concepts. Why develop a negotiation strategy? To get a better price! How do we do this? Understand your maximum and minimum price, consider the other person’s point of view, and keep the relationship positive so you can do business again tomorrow. Though they still had plenty to learn, the trainees were ready to return home, draw on their experiences from the simulation, and apply their new skills to making money the next morning, saving more wisely and investing more strategically.
On my drive home, still feeling exuberant, I reflected on how crucial an experiential learning approach is for teaching practical microenterprise and entrepreneurial [End Page 117] skills. I realized this method had the potential to change lives: it allowed the participants to build on what they knew, based on the premise that, given the right tools and knowledge, people can learn more than they—or others—think they can. The course capitalized on this, allowing participants to experiment and take the risks involved in running a business while staying within the safe confines of a classroom. They were also re-enforcing or developing attitudes, learning skills, and building confidence—all key to achieving personal and professional goals.
The next morning I woke up feeling despondent. It struck me that I had taught ten people the day before, but nearly half of the population in South Africa was unemployed. Moreover, nearly 75% of the population was under 35, and I knew that many of the world’s 1.4 billion young people between the ages of 13 and 28 would lead lives like those unemployed adults in Khayelitsha, because their school systems are failing and they lack opportunities in and outside of home to learn how to earn, save, and invest in the education that would lead to jobs.1
But, I thought, what if we could equip young people on a massive scale with entrepreneurial life skills like problem solving and planning, the confidence to do things in new ways, and business management skills—and couple it with knowledge about how to manage their money and save it in a safe place. Could that break the cycle of chronic unemployment and limited economic choices? The seed was planted. I knew I was going to focus on increasing economic opportunities for others, especially children and teenagers. I recognized the need to reach young people as early as possible with these crucial skills, using a method that made learning fun, yet effective. I also saw how crucial it was to support the teachers and trainers on the front lines of this new kind of experiential education. This faith in experiential learning, joined by an understanding of the crucial need for local capacity building and practical responses to complex problems, underscored my approach to serving youth, and more recently to developing the field of youth economic opportunity (YEO).
Two years later, in 1999, at age 26, I was ready to return to my family in North America. I had seen how an experiential learning...