As a boy, 16-year-old Miles Johnson's father taught him about the power of compound interest: If he had money and put it away, it would grow so that one day he'd be able to buy something he really wanted.
Steadily contributing to his savings account, he got a nice pair of headphones, a laptop for school and an idea — a mobile app that could help others from low-income backgrounds reach retirement and financial freedom.
His plan for the "Next Generation" mobile app took first place and won $1,000 at a business plan competition recently, part of the free Los Angeles BizCamp Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge. The summer camp was created by the nonprofit Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship in partnership with the Los Angeles Urban League.
Miles was one of 21 underserved high school students from across Los Angeles who met with teachers and business mentors every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the two-week camp to find a problem in their communities and address it with a business solution.
Miles proposed a host of simple financial tools that help people, at the touch of a screen, check their budget daily, monitor their credit and access resources about getting out of debt.
"I thought this could help them and prevent them from being broke at 65 ... or see how a car or house payment might fit in their budget," said Miles, who now has a shot at competing on the national level for $25,000 with a free trip to Silicon Valley.
Adrian Griffin, his mother, described him as "completely self-motivated."
"I can't say whether I'm proud or embarrassed that I didn't help at all," said Griffin, who couldn't attend the event because she was working. "I had a feeling that he was going to win, so that day I put my phone in my pocket, something I don't usually do. I wanted to make sure he could get hold of me no matter what."
At the event, the high schoolers studied concepts in finance, marketing and recognizing business opportunities. They put their knowledge into action by drafting plans for a music school for children with autism, a multicultural magazine to boost young women's self-confidence, a healthy food truck for high school and college campuses, and more.
The competition gave students such as 16-year-old Mario Seki the chance to work on their own ideal careers. Moonlighting as a magician since the age of 6, Mario, now a student at the School of Arts and Enterprise in Pomona, said he hopes to expand his business, which already includes performing at birthday parties, and social and community events.
"Magic is a really nice form of medicine in a way. My mission is to make someone's day better," said Mario, who placed second at the BizCamp competition and won $750.
"I thought this is for him because he can really learn about running a business," said Judy Seki of her son, the youngest of nine children. "Each one has a different interest and you just support them in any way you can. Part of that was finding this."
Sisters Passion Lord, 15, and Dajah Blades, 14, saw their confidence skyrocket over the course of the camp as they developed presentation skills.
On competition day they fearlessly shared slices of lemon pie and their vision for "P and D's Sweet Treats" to promote peace through pastries from around the world. They placed third and won $300.
"Why not do something that brings everyone together?" Dajah said.
"The secret ingredient is love," Passion added.
"To see them light up and fill the room was phenomenal," said Jessie Mosqueda, a community development officer for Citi, which sponsored the camp through its foundation's commitment to spend $50 million over three years on programs for youths in low-income communities.
Romann Anderson, who will be a sophomore at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, won the BizCamp fast-pitch competition and $75. He impressed judges with his pitch for "Prism Gaming," a compact video game console.
"I was very proud that he was able to tap into the business aspect as well as the fun," said Stacy Beverly, Romann's mom.
It's a lesson Romann said he hopes to take with him going forward.
"If I go into business in something I'm passionate about, I won't back down," Romann said.
A 2013 NFTE research project found that alumni from their programs beat the national employment average of 69% — 88% of their participants are in the workforce. They're also more likely to be self-employed: 22% of NFTE alumni have their own businesses, compared to the national average of 11%.
"It teaches them how to fish and build futures," said Estelle Reyes, NFTE executive director.
With participants being tasked to deliver a 30-second elevator pitch and an eight-minute presentation by the program's conclusion, BizCamp covered a curriculum that typically takes a full academic year, according to teacher Timothy Dura.
"It's like taking someone, opening up their mouth, shoving in a fire hose and turning it on to see how much they absorb," said Dura, who teaches at the Hawthorne Math and Science Academy. "They've done really, really well. I'm very proud of them."
A second session of BizCamp begins Monday and runs through July 18. For more information, visit http://www.tinyurl.com/2014BizCampApplication.