Street-smart entrepreneurship Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2007

John Zitzner is on a mission to groom the next generation of entrepreneurs. But Zitzner, a successful entrepreneur who sold his software firm to Xerox several years ago, doesn’t identify prospects in the halls of prestigious schools like Case Western Reserve University, Wharton or Harvard. Rather, he finds protégés in an unlikely place: inner city Cleveland junior high and high schools, where poverty is rampant and dropout rates run high.

Zitzner is founder and president of E CITY, a five-year-old nonprofit organization that teaches entrepreneurship to low-income young people in Cleveland. The group’s innovative 70-hour after-school educational program focuses on 14- to 21-year-olds and is structured on the belief that kids in the inner city who have mental toughness, street smarts, survival instincts and creativity can put those traits to productive use if they are given the right direction.

E CITY stands for Entrepreneurship: Connecting, Inspiring and Teaching Youth. It exposes students to how a business operates and focuses on each student’s ability to take ownership of his or her life to be productive, responsible and financially self-sufficient, Zitzner says. A heavy emphasis is placed on the correlation between what is learned in the classroom and what is learned in the real world.

Once accepted into the program, students spend 70 hours, in two-hour sessions after school, to learn the basics of how to start a business.

Each student is given a $50 grant to buy products that are resold for a profit as part of an initial lesson in business operations. Students then work with a mentor to develop a plan for a new business. At the program’s end, students offer a PowerPoint presentation about their business idea to a panel of judges. The judges award cash prizes that the students can use to advance their ideas.

E CITY’s success led Zitzner and his team to open a sister organization, E Prep, to a class of 125 sixth-graders. E Prep, which opened in August 2006, is built around a culture of entrepreneurship and teaches a college preparatory curriculum to sixth-and seventh-graders. The program’s goal is for every student in the program to graduate from high school and be accepted into at least one four-year college.

HOW TO REACH: E CITY/E Prep, www.ecitycleveland.com or (216) 881-0735