Entrepreneurial Studies Sweep America’s High School System
Senior Features Editor
As Henry Ford, Richard Sears and other trailblazing entrepreneurs cemented their business empires in the early 20th century, two of their lesser-known peers — also with no advanced education — laid the foundation of a different legacy.
In Massachusetts in 1919, Theodore Vail, president of AT&T, and Horace Moses, president of Strathmore Paper, founded what might be the first extra-curricular entrepreneurial program in the country -- Junior Achievement, which taught high school students the skills of the trade after school hours.
Now, programs of Colorado-based Junior Achievementreach more than 4 million students a year; in particular, its JA Be Entrepreneurial program focuses on challenging students to start their own entrepreneurial venture while still in high school.
JA is hardly alone. In places like Philadelphia, Lincoln, Neb., Portland, Ore., and Syracuse, N.Y., cities, schools and not-for-profit organizations are teaching entrepreneurial studies to kids well before they reach college age.
“These are desperate times; we’re facing great challenges in the global economy,” says Ted Zoller, a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation's entrepreneurship program and a professor at the University of Carolina-Chapel Hill. “People are really hungry for heroes.”
The growth in entrepreneurial programs at the high school level, much like the more-publicized college ones, appears to touch on both a consumer need and a societal nerve.
The Internet age has created hundreds of innovative, charismatic business minds, whose game-changing ideas have earned them fame and fortune, while changing the work and recreational lives of millions of people.
It also coincides with a rethink of the nation’s educational system, long based on a four-year, liberal arts degree, whose soaring cost has created staggering and burdensome debt for many students.
Those forces, along with the maturation of the global economy, the dominance of massive multinational companies and a shaky, unpredictable job market, have stoked renewed and widespread interest in business startups and self-employment, experts say.
‘We’re looking for leaders in business because people have largely abandoned traditional kinds of business -- private equity, large companies,” says Zoller. “They’re disappointed. They’re hungry for a new generation of entrepreneurs.”
Almost half (45 percent) of the pre-college students polled in a 2011 Gallup survey said they planned to start their own business, while 42 percent of them said they will invent something that changes the world.
In addition, a recent NFIB Young Entrepreneur Foundation survey found that 90 percent of teachers and guidance counselors said their students were interested in becoming entrepreneurs, but 75 percent of the students didn’t know where to start.
Margaret Marie Butler, director of Syracuse University’s Student Entrepreneurial Experience (SEE) and a college dropout and former business owner, helped launch the program this year knowing kids who were unlikely to advance to college needed help.
“They have great ideas but don’t have an outlet for them — that there are people out there who can help them,” she said.
Twenty teens, including three who had already started a business before participating, just completed SEE’s inaugural week-long program. Affiliated with the university’s South Side Innovation Center, the program accommodates high school and college students and is modeled on an adult program that started seven years ago.
At SEE, the students meet with successful entrepreneurs — a fairly common component; in this case, the group included the foundersofBrand Yourself, a free, online reputation service.
Though these programs vary widely in focus, format, duration, student base and cost, many of them, like Vail’s and Moses’ a century ago, are founded, run and even supported by entrepreneurs.
Some are famous, others are not.
Peter Thiel, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of PayPal, is now in the third year of his foundation’s fellowships, which award $100,000 to 20 young entrepreneurs, who are willing to skip college for two years and focus on their work.
Philadelphia-based Startup Corpsis also in its third year.
Co-founded by local entrepreneurs Rich Sedmak and Christian Kunkel, the organization received early support from Walter Buckley, founder and CEO of the Internet Capital Group, which is based in a Philadelphia suburb. Some 200 area entrepreneurs serve as mentors.
Ninety-two students from six schools participated in the in-school program this pastyear, which provides the nuts and bolts of starting your own businesses. The program will add an after-school component to serve more students, the majority of whom are low-income, inner city.
“The goal is to develop an entrepreneurial mindset," says Sedmak, who founded his first company — a consumer electronic s liquidation business — when he was 15 and eventually dropped out of college to start another firm. “Startup Corps, like Peter Thiel, believes that there's a huge societal opportunity cost in letting entrepreneurial minds slip through the cracks,” Sedmak said. “Both the university system, and even more, so the k-12 education system, are anti-entrepreneurial. Our kids hate school. “
Startup Corps accommodates for-profit enterprises, as well as not-for-profit ones, which in some cases, mix commerce with a cause.
Sedmak, for example, readily cites the success of two 16-year-old, hip-hop music fans who started a music label that promotes peace and nonviolence within the genre, recruiting local stars.
In Portland, Ore., entrepreneurship is a full-time, four-year pursuit at the nation’s only charter school devoted to the subject. The Leadership and Entrepreneurship Public Charter High School (LEP) opened its doors in August 2006 and has 325 students, man of whom are considered at risk of failing academically.
Unlike the other programs, LEP specifically wants its students to achieve a post-secondary education, even as it encourages them to start a business while in school.
The school works with local entrepreneurial organizations, as well as Angel Investors Oregon, which has provided funding for some of the students’ ventures.
“We do very specific things about learning how to be an entrepreneur, but we also want them to be problem solvers, to take ownership of their life and career and to be risk-takers,” said Principal Lorna Fast Buffalo Horse.
In Lincoln, Neb., the public school district operates the Entrepreneurship Focus Programwith the help of private funding. It takes up to 80 students a year. The program is something of a hybrid; it provides core subjects (English, math) and entrepreneurial-business focused ones (marketing, applied economics and technology).
In Irvine, Calif., the Teen Entrepreneur Academy just ended its first summer at Concordia University, the Christian school where U.S. Olympic beach volleyball champion Misty May-Treanoris studying for a master’s degree.
Professor and university EVP Stephen Christensen, who teaches entrepreneurial studies, started the 40-person program after he saw the 2011 Gallup poll about kids' interest in starting a business, and adapted some of his college material for a high school audience.
"They all had an interest in business but some didn’t know what the word entrepreneur meant," he said.
Christensen, who is working on a master's in theology and is founder of commercial and nonprofit ventures, added: “I'm really committed to exposing them to new ways of thinking; entrepreneurs see problems and opportunities and act on them. It’s a paradigm shift."
The program, for which participants had to create a business plan, yielded ones for a social media site where teens could share videos and music, and for an open source gaming site for small-game developers.
Among the visiting entrepreneurs was Michael Mattos, who founded enCard, which provides premium credit-card applications and processing services used by some 30 million merchants.
Christensen’s program has a unique twist. In keeping the Christian foundation of the school, the program also incorporates what he considers business lessons from the Bible, from market research to delegation.
Make no mistake, though, he’s a businessman at heart. He’s designed a $3,000 licensing kit so others can use the program.
“I need to recoup some my startup costs,” he says, showing his entrepreneurial colors.
Yes, comparisons to the entrepreneurs of today may sound rich, but in the end, even the best and brightest of them start small — and young.
“Tons of these ‘netpreneurs,’ when they were 15 years old they were doing these micro enterprises,” said Startup Corps’ Sedmak.