At its most basic level, a startup is a learning machine—one that helps its founders understand and serve the real world in a manner that enables itself to continuously gather information and grow. If it doesn’t learn and adjust, a startup ends.
Successful students, like startups, are those who are resilient, constantly absorbing new information and challenging their assumptions. We’re not surprised, then, to see a proliferation of startup and entrepreneurial programs springing up in and around K-12 schools. What’s more, an entrepreneurial culture, carefully scaffolded, can help schools transform and unlock learning in ways that more traditional coursework cannot.
What follows is a tour through some programs that offer students the chance to engage in entrepreneurial thinking before they enter college. Although we would never encourage a school leader to drop any one model in its entirety into an existing school, savvy educators should be able to appropriate and adapt choice bits and moments of what follows. Like a startup, developing a sustainable entrepreneurial program in your school begins with an impulse to make something new, and succeeds or fails based on your team’s ability to support the venture as it iterates, pivots and grows.
Entrepreneurship as a Standalone Option
Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, is an all girls PK-12 independent school. They offer two entrepreneurship programs, a Capstone Program and the Veale Venture Challenge. Covering four years, the entrepreneurship category of the Capstone Program asks high school students to lead and drive their own learning. Whether participating in bi-weekly discussions based on articles selected by the students themselves, visiting with entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, or meeting with expert mentors in the field, students develop a research focus before they graduate.
The Veale Venture Challenge is an open program for high school students. Through a series of steps—including the development of a business plan and a presentation to investors—it aims to help students start a business while they are still in the school.
“At Laurel School, we know that being an entrepreneur is a mindset, one that requires resiliency, problem solving, and passion,” says physics teacher Taylor Kaar, who also serves as Director of Entrepreneurship. “These are skills and traits that we feel are universally desirable today, and we know that the skills a girl learns at Laurel School’s entrepreneurship offerings will be transferable to any field.”
Entrepreneurial Thinking as Curricular Strand
Louisville Collegiate is a JK–12, co-ed day school in Louisville, Ky. Unlike the Laurel School, whose programs are open to self-selecting, entrepreneurially-minded students, Louisville Collegiate pushes entrepreneurial thinking into much of its curricular offerings.
In the lower and middle-school grades, for example, developing an entrepreneurial mindset is the key to student success. Students are taught and encouraged to apply some of the central tenets of entrepreneurialism, including empathy, reflection and the identification of problems as opportunities. Then, in sixth grade, such flexible thinking bears fruit as students complete a STEAM project requiring them to research a local problem (in this case, water pollution), work in teams, design and test water filters.
In terms of entrepreneurial programming, Louisville Collegiate may be best known for its wide-ranging Upper School offerings. One program, which is embedded in a quarter-long course taken by all juniors, connects students directly to local businesses and entrepreneurs, culminating in a pitch event where students present to CEOs and executives solutions to local problems. For students who want a deeper dive, two semester elective courses are offered: Entrepreneurial Problem Solving and Entrepreneurship Through Startup, with the latter course culminating in a state-wide startup pitch competition. By the time students are in 12th grade, they are ready to leave campus and put their entrepreneurial skills, behaviors, and attitudes to the test. All seniors serve as interns for a local business, entrepreneur, or non-profit organization.
“Collegiate’s entrepreneurship program gives students the creative freedom to think ambitiously,” says Tracie Catlett, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs. “Entrepreneurial education requires our students to translate problems into opportunities, research the current market, engage in risk-taking and build interpersonal communication skills.” She continues: “Making a pitch to a CEO in a company boardroom feels more relevant to our students compared to delivering a PowerPoint presentation within the walls of a high school classroom. The students are intrinsically motivated to do their best because they want to impress the CEO, and they know that their final work has the potential to impact a local business in our community.”
Startup as Post-Curricular Option
At Montclair Kimberley Academy (MKA), a PK-12, co-ed day school in Montclair, N.J., all seniors complete their coursework around the end of April. During May, they complete a self-designed and project or internship, travel abroad, or participate in an option called Startup 101.
We conceived this program by asking a deceptively simple question: What would happen if learning at school became more like working at a startup?
Answers followed quickly. School as startup would not mean: homework, grades, exams, or scheduled class periods. It would mean: clear starting and ending points, designated physical and digital space in which to gather and work, and opportunities to expand and share networks, gain new experiences, and field near continuous feedback. It would not mean teachers; it would mean, instead, guides.
With those loose guard rails in place, Startup 101 solidified into a one-month long experience. The intent was to allow students to identify and define a problem worth solving and to research it thoroughly. They would then design a concept and a plan for bringing it to market.
In the first two years, the program attracted almost 10 percent of each senior class, and students took to the work quickly and assuredly. We knew the program was working when we walked into the room on the second day of the first cohort—the boards were covered in post-it notes, and the students were all bursting with enthusiasm. (Remember, these were seniors who were just a few weeks from graduating.) This kind of concentrated intensity and teamwork brings to mind the lead-up to a stage production, or on the sports field.
In the first year of the program, the nine students who participated already knew each other, but they had not worked together in this capacity before. They tweaked designs and logos. They talked to peers and professionals. They connected to new people through people they already knew. They visited the offices of design firms (Aruliden), giant tech companies (Facebook, Google), and innovation hubs (Quirky, Techstars, AlleyNYC). On the second-to-last day, they gave a pitch to a panel of venture capitalists, industry experts, and entrepreneurial alumni.
Tejpaul Bhatia, Entrepreneur in Residence at Citi Ventures, shared his impressions with Reshan after meeting one of the cohorts: “It is impressive and inspiring to see how the students grasp the entrepreneurial spirit and methodologies so quickly and apply them to real world problems that are worth solving.”
Heather Milke, one of the students from the first cohort, described her group’s final pitch this way:
“[It] was a fun culmination of the Startup 101 endeavor as a chance to celebrate and share our accomplishments. However, we also took the pitch very seriously. Our team had decided somewhere during our month together that our idea was worth pursuing after the Startup 101 program officially ended. So, when presenting our ideas to a group of investors and entrepreneurs, we ultimately sought support and constructive feedback so that we could keep moving forward with our idea. The pitch was the end of Startup 101, but we also hoped it would be just the beginning for our company.”
There were no “teachers,” in the traditional sense, for Startup 101. The real teachers were the people they met on their trips, or whom they called because of a friendly introduction, or who stopped by to ask what they were working on. More so, the students learned from each other—sharing bits of code or design feedback or questions. This is how the “real world” operates, and these students proved that it is possible to experience real learning and high engagement in school without external, artificial motivators. Also, they proved that, to run a program like this, schools don’t need someone who is an expert in all knowledge domains to serve as a guide.
Conclusion: It’s Not About the Startup
Startup 101 is not about building the next billion-dollar app, an idea that has been perpetuated by the profligacy of Silicon Valley’s great-man myth. It’s an alluring but dangerous concept. Some of our students, before conducting their first survey or sales pitch, believe that they may be on the cusp of building the next Facebook.
Entrepreneurial programs should not expose students to startup culture because we expect students to build the next Facebook; rather, these opportunities offer students a valuable way to learn about teamwork, problem solving, iteration, resilience, and how to leverage their networks to make things, solve dilemmas, fix irritants, unblock blockages, and work harder than they ever have before.
Many students want to begin with an idea for a solution, but we encourage them to peel it back to understand the problem or opportunity that it addresses. If they walk away from the program with a better understanding of how to define a problem and link that to whatever idea they have, we count that as a success.
Ultimately, we want to prepare young people to change the world—when they are equipped and ready to do just that.