Virtually Professional

| 07 Apr 2017 | 05:15

At first glance, the trade show last week at Pier 92 on the West Side looked just like any of the dozens of other conventions held in Manhattan each year. Thousands of conventioneers hailing from 10 countries navigated row upon row of display booths on a bustling sales floor, exchanging cards and introductions in a whirlwind of networking and deal-making, wide smiles and firm handshakes all around.

But a closer look revealed that this wasn’t a normal business conference — none of the companies in attendance sold any real-world products, and all of the bright-eyed young professionals were teenagers.

The three-day event, held April 3-5, was the annual Youth Business Summit of Virtual Enterprises International, an education nonprofit that operates in 500 schools nationwide and tasks middle and high school students with founding and running “virtual companies” that do business with firms from other schools in a global simulated marketplace. During the school year, students build and manage all aspects of their businesses — staffing entire marketing and payroll departments, preparing budgets and developing products — and receive classroom mentorship from corporate sponsors along the way. “You can’t understand how to run a business unless you do it first,” Iris Blanc, the program’s executive director, said.

By the year-end convention, the simulated companies are full-fledged enterprises, complete with social media feeds, websites and marketing materials. On the convention floor, a massive salesmanship competition is an opportunity to show off businesses to fellow students and industry professionals, who can purchase products and services for their own firms using virtual currency.

The student-run businesses at this year’s summit covered a diverse range of industries, including technology, marketing and entertainment. Seniors from the High School of Economics and Finance in the Financial District touted their financial services company, which invests the retirement savings of student “employees” from other firms in 401(k) plans.

Sales manager Mamadou Ly, 18, detailed the investment strategies and stock holdings of the three mutual funds offered by the firm. Ly, who plans to study accounting and finance at Baruch College or Hunter College next year, explained that a team of student portfolio managers invests virtual funds in a simulated stock markets. And apparently they know what they’re doing — one of their funds has posted a 21.8 percent return since September. “What’s not to love about a 401(k), right?” Ly said with a smile.

Ly’s teammate Kayele Spencer, 18, said that she gained valuable management skills in the class. “My biggest learning experience was just working with different personalities and being to pick up what everyone’s strengths were,” said Spencer, who hopes to attend Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey next year.

The Virtual Enterprises program has its roots in New York City public schools, where city administrators implemented it in 1996 after observing a similar program in Austria. In addition to the High School of Economics and Finance, students from seven other Manhattan high schools showcased their VE businesses at the summit, including the Upper West Side’s High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, which formed a robotics company, and the Manhattan Business Academy in Chelsea, where students developed a viral marketing firm.

A number of the program’s alumni have gone on to found businesses of their own, including Bobby Lenahan, who worked in the accounting department of his class’s virtual firm during his senior year of high school on Long Island. As a sophomore at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, Lenahan started IV Hero, a company that aims to make hospitals less scary for children by selling sleeves that fit over IV bags, illustrated with superheroes to help kids imagine they’re getting injected with superpowers rather than medicine.

Now in his senior year at Molloy, Lenahan’s sleeves are used in 15 hospitals across four states. He credits the high school program with pushing him toward entrepreneurship. “It got me motivated to go into business,” Lenahan said. “And that’s why I chose my major as accounting, because I loved what I was doing in VE so much.”