In "Ten9Eight," urban kids choose business, not drugs

Anne Montague shows off her dance moves. Photo by Richard Schultz.Anne Montague shows off her dance moves. Photo by Richard Schultz.Macalee Harlis, a high school football player from Fort Lauderdale, had one of those aha moments while playing football and looking at his coach's transition lenses. He thought about how difficult both sun glare and stadium lights can be for players on the field. That's when he came up with the idea for MAC Shields, football helmet shields that function like transition lenses. Anne Montague runs a dance school in Baltimore aimed at keeping urban kids off the streets. Amanda Loyala manufactures and sells vegetarian, eco-friendly dog treats that she whips up in her kitchen in New York City. She was inspired to create the treats after her dog died from cancer and she learned that red meat has been linked to cancer in dogs.

These entrepreneurs are trying to solve big problems with their businesses. And they are part of a bigger effort to keep urban kids from dropping out of school. They all started their businesses through the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), a program that teaches business skills to middle and high school kids. NFTE's program culminates in an annual business plan competition where the top students from schools around the country travel to New York City to pitch their business plans and vie for a $10,000 prize grand prize.

Documentary filmmaker Mary Mazzio heard about the contest and realized that it had the makings of a compelling film. She followed the students from the time the regional winners were selected until the final competition in New York. The resulting film, Ten9eight, has all the ingredients of reality television plus another vital one -- reality. The teenagers on the screen have seen the worst of life -- a young woman talks of being molested by her grandfather, several have parents who were addicts or had been in prison, many have siblings who ended up on the streets. As the kids tell their stories, you can see that their businesses are taking them onto a new path, giving them something to hope for.

While it might sound a little Hallmark, the film avoids sentimentality by shifting from the contest story-line to hip-hop dance sequences, slam poet performances and excerpts from the students' own video diaries. The message was clear. It's cool to be in business. At a preview shown to hundreds of New York City teenagers this week, filmmaker Mary Mazzio said you could hear a pin drop. I saw it in a preview last night with an introduction by Russell Simmons. As the credits rolled and the dancers appeared, I couldn't help thinking about the kids who didn't win and wondering what will happen to them and to their businesses. And then I remembered the words of one of the girls in the film, "Whatever happens, we're all winners for having come this far."