Santa Barbara High School students are learning how to run their own business in a Virtual Enterprise class called Dons Net Café. Correction: They actually are running their own business. Since September 2000, Dons Net Café has been an entirely student-run enterprise located on the Santa Barbara High School campus.
Students practice what they term “Ethonomics” (Ethical Economics). Through the sale of Dons Net Café products such as T-shirts, buttons, key chains, and mouse pads, students participate in a wide array of community service opportunities.
The largest revenue generator for Dons Net Café is the “snack shack,” a small cart rolled out between class periods on campus that offers healthier and more affordable alternatives to the campus vending machines. Employees are currently working with the Orfalea Foundation to make these snacks organic and even healthier.
Perhaps Dons Net Café’s most significant community service is its Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA). Each year, students in the Virtual Enterprise class help approximately 600 low-income families and individuals file tax returns.
Dons Net Café participates in more community service and business initiatives than most businesses. As Co-Chief Executive Officer Katherine Gray put it, “I can’t think of a single problem that we’re not alleviating in some way.” Programs include cell phone recycling, customized recycling bins, and beach cleanups. Students also attend trade fairs and community events such as United Way’s Day of Caring, where members wrote and performed a song for the official breakfast. Currently, students are preparing for Santa Barbara’s Earth Day, where they have been asked to be the official Youth Ambassadors and to design official T-shirts. Students are also writing a song they will perform for the event.
But Dons Net Café is not limited to domestic products and services. They are currently selling Do Ubuntu bracelets, and 100 percent of the proceeds go to the women and orphans in Africa who construct these bracelets. The students also created the campaign’s official T-shirt, soon to be sold worldwide. Newest on the agenda is the purchase and shipping of “billboard bags,” which are made out of discarded billboards by Indonesian trash pickers.
Dons Net Café provides high school students with the incredible opportunity to learn how to run their own business. Although teacher and founder Lee Ann Knodel certainly provides support and guidance, students in the class are expected to take the lead. Dons Net Café works with a long list of business partners on its various ventures, giving students valuable contacts for internships, employment, and guidance. Students in the class receive the highest rate of scholarship awards on campus at 91 percent.
I met with three student entrepreneurs before visiting with the whole class. Katherine Gray, co-CEO with Marissa Villa, expressed her enthusiasm for the class and the opportunities it has opened for her both on and off campus. Participating heavily in the Café’s Tax Assistance program, Katherine wants to study accounting. Senior Spencer Moore wants to some day start his own business, “To say that I did this, that I accomplished something.” Senior Irene Ricardo shared similar goals: to start her own business and to still be involved with Dons Net Café. Having already run a business at age 16, these three youths know exactly what they want and what their goals will require. And along the way, as the company terms it, they’re “doin’ some good in the world.”