Students Launch a Business with Help from American Express

2013_CitizensSchools_SharkTank_0001 Imagine, you’re shopping for sportswear and your favorite design has a tag that reads, “proudly developed by middle school students at the Urban Assembly School.” Surprised? Don’t be. Thanks to Benjamin van-Rooy, director at American Express, students in the Citizen Schools program in Brooklyn, New York executed the concept and business plan for their own sports apparel business.

Once a week, Ben and his eight-person team of volunteers from American Express left the office early to teach a group of 7th grade students at their school in Brooklyn. These are not your average middle schools students and Ben is not your typical teacher. As part of a longer school day with Citizen Schools, a national organization that partners with public middle schools, these students have the opportunity to work alongside professionals like Ben, in an “apprenticeship” class, where they learn how to start businesses, build robots, invest in stocks, and more.

These hands-on learning experiences taught by volunteers like Ben give students a taste of what it’s like to have a successful career. They expose students to new ideas and skills that inspire them to dream big and get excited about the future.


From the ground up, Ben guided his class through the development of a business plan, the design of their product, and the building of a marketing strategy. Seeing each student light up with enthusiasm about a topic they might not have experienced otherwise was Ben’s favorite part of teaching. The icing on the cake was watching students impress his colleagues and executives on the top floor of the American Express building in New York City when they presented their business plans at the end of the semester.

This opportunity wouldn’t have been possible without Ben’s passion and dedication. We are pleased to recognize Ben van-Rooy, as our volunteer “Citizen Teacher” of the month.  Ben is originally from New Zealand and is a graduate of the University of Auckland Business School.  He currently lives in New York City and has a passion for photography.  We asked him about his teaching experience at Citizen Schools…..


Why were you drawn to volunteering with Citizen Schools?

I’ve always been interested in contributing back to the community that I work in and consider myself lucky to have had a good education. Giving students an expanded learning opportunity that interests them and is targeted toward careers livens up education, and opens students’ eyes to an array of the possibilities before them.

What was your approach to teaching this course?

I couldn’t have done it without my team of seven Citizen Teachers. We all worked together to help prepare the lessons and everyone had a chance to lead one. It was really cool to watch the different levels of professional experience come together in a way not normally seen at work. It helped to develop relationships and understanding of other roles within the company that we didn’t have before. Working with a team, allowed the students to interact with more people and make connections.

What is your biggest take-away from this experience?

There is so much to be taken away for both students and volunteers. I was surprised at how much I learned. Figuring out different ways to present material to make sure everybody understood it was a new skill I can use when giving presentations at work going forward. Teaching the students about business actually allowed students to get creative and strengthen their skills. It was great to see them get passionate about something and put in the effort to build a viable business plan.  I recommend every professional try volunteering with Citizen Schools.


You can inspire students like Ben did by signing up to teach an apprenticeship. You might even be our next Citizen Teacher of the month!