Young people around the United States are creating virtual businesses that produce simulated products, which are marketed and sold for virtual money. Thirteen hundred students recently showcased their ventures, ranging from telecom firms to gourmet food providers, in Pasadena, California.
At what looked like a corporate trade show, students from Miguel Contreras Business and Tourism School in Los Angeles solicited customers for their tour company. Teacher Darrell Iki helped the students launch Big City Tours, which exists only in the classroom and online. The company stages virtual tours to different parts of Los Angeles, highlighting the city's ethnic heritage, fashion or high-end shopping. A related virtual company sells travel gear.
Students from Century High School in Santa Ana, California, sell a hypothetical translation device geared toward travelers.
It all starts with a business plan, according to Iki, as students are named to executive positions and learn to "work together, having a common goal in a potentially successful business."
The students quickly realized that business is complicated, according to the head of the nonprofit group that works with schools around the country to impart skills through simulations. Thirteen thousand students go through the program each year.
"They're running meetings, they're networking, they're meeting with professionals, they're working with mentors," said Nick Chapman of Virtual Enterprises International. The students showcase their companies at competitions, like this one in California. Similar virtual business programs exist in schools in 40 countries.
One student entrepreneur said he now understands the pressure of running a company, in this case a food firm called Taste of the World. He has overseen human resources and digital media for the virtual firm at Century High School in California.
"You really need to be hands-on with your employees and make sure your guys have strong communication," said Miguel Santin. "Otherwise, the company just won't prosper."
Taste of the World is a subscription service that, at least in theory, sends snacks to subscribers through the mail.
"You sign up for three months, six months, a year, and you receive a snack box with trinkets and information about that company every single month throughout your subscription time," said teacher Alan Gersten.
No real money changes hands.
"You would pay within our virtual economy," Gersten said, "using virtual money in a web-based simulated banking system. All the kids in the program have bank accounts, so when they buy something, we give them a receipt."
There's a lot to learn, noted teacher Stephen Jarvis of the Elizabeth Learning Center in Cudahy, California. "It isn't just selling something. It's all the things that go on behind the scenes — creating documents, figuring out if you're making money or losing money," he said.
The money isn't real, but the skills are, said a student entrepreneur with the virtual company Big City Tours, who won a scholarship to college.
"I went to the interviews, and being in this company has helped me really prepare my presentation skills and be able to talk to other people," said student Catalina Garcia, who will start college this fall and hopes to become a doctor. She says the skills she gained in a virtual company have helped her, whether or not she starts her own company or works in the corporate sector.