WEST ORANGE, NJ - School has become more like a venture into the business world for a group of students at West Orange High School who are participating in the school's new Virtual Enterprise International (VEI) program, just launched in the district this year.

VEI is an educational nonprofit that aims to transform students into business professionals by "bringing the workplace into the classroom." In the 23 years since its inception, VEI has served over 140,000 students, according to its website. The VEI model includes educators, business leaders and post-secondary partners.

VEI works with schools and districts to implement a credited class that lasts the full school year and which provides students with "an authentic, collaborative business and entrepreneurship experience through its live global business simulation model."

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The board of directors of the local version of VEI is made up of members of the West Orange Chamber of Commerce.

"They have been very helpful to our students thus far," Nancy Mullin, supervisor of Career Education and Library Science at the West Orange Public Schools, said of the Chamber of Commerce. "In addition we have received donations both monetary and in the form of  business style furniture to help start our program. The support from the community and district has been outstanding."

Maria Frangos, the teacher and facilitator for the West Orange VEI, said the program provides students an opportunity to gain real business world knowledge.

"This is a high level, interactive, fast-paced capstone course in the Entrepreneurship track in WOHS where the traditional classroom is transformed into a simulated startup," Frangos said. "The students run the business from inception to fruition with the teacher acting as facilitator and advisor along with a Board of Directors made up of members from the local West Orange business community. (The course) also affords students the opportunity to network with business leaders, which can result in job or internship opportunities and earn college credit."

The Orange/West Orange (O/WO) Chapter of UNICO National has WOHS juniors and seniors participate in VEI  pair up with local business professionals as part of a new capstone program. The non-profit program at WOHS is one of fewer  than 400 schools in the nation to take part in this learning environment.

Roman Martens, franchise owner of British Swim School of West Orange, which opened in town earlier this year, has been impressed with his interactions with the VEI students with whom he has dealt.

"VEI is a great program. The kids are largely running the business on their own," Martens said. "I interviewed candidates for the company that they created. I did a mock interview for them. And I can say that the people I met were really good, bright young people. These kids are quite impressive."

The students recently pitched their product to the members of O/WO UNICO, providing them the opportunity to practice and receive real-world feedback. At the meeting, O/WO UNICO  Scholarship Chairman Frank Gonnella announced that the chapter will award a seventh $1,500 scholarship to a graduating senior who successfully completes this capstone course.

The company established by the WOHS VEI students is EliaLife Inc. According to an excerpt from the company's business plan, EliaLife Inc. is "a West Orange, New Jersey start-up dedicated to improving customer health while assisting in the preservation of traditional olive oil farming. We do so as facilitators of sale, connecting small southern european COOPs in Italy, Greece, and Spain with eco-friendly and health conscious buyers throughout the United States and Europe.”

Frangos said that the classroom truly emulates a business in action.

"Walk in on any given class meeting and see the CEO, COO and CFO collaborating about the next project or the CMO leading his team in the next marketing event," Frangos said. "Watch the accounting associates navigate QuickBooks in setting up the firm’s financials or marvel at the sales team creating their next pitch."

Students in a VEI business produce key deliverables and work in departments—Administration, Accounting/Finance, Sales, Marketing, Human Resources, and IT—that are overseen by a student management team and chief executive officer.

"As the facilitator I am continuously impressed with the students in my VE course," Frangos said. "At the moment the EliaLife team is preparing for the branding competition, and the business plan competition in January at Fairleigh Dickinson University.  These are only two of the many competitions our students participate in, including the national trade show and business elements competitions in April.

"In summary," Frangos said. "VE is a stimulating educational setting for any student who is interested in cutting their teeth on the skills required for success in the world of business."