Entrepreneurship is not widely taught in high schools. But there is no shortage of high school students with ideas, and a hunger to start businesses and with their eyes on business school.
Twenty such young mavericks just completed a two-week experience at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as part of a new “Young Entrepreneurs” program sponsored and organized by Inc. magazine in partnership with Summer Discovery.
After two weeks of classes, the students competed in a “shark-tank” like competition to put ideas to a three-person judging panel: Wes Matthews, co-founder of High-Level Marketing; Brent Yax, CEO of Awecomm; Theo Ellis, Founder of ProSound Media.
A DAUNTING THREE-TO-FOUR MINUTE PITCH IN FRONT OF JUDGES
The judges narrowed the competition to the top three ideas, all, it turned out, developed by young women despite women being outnumbered in the cohort four to one: a beverage company that would distribute ready-to-drink “Shirley Temples”, called Surely; a franchised ice-cream truck business, branded Sprinkles, whose unique-selling proposition is background checks and vetting of the drivers who operate the trucks; and a mobile vacuum that sucks up tennis balls on a court and feeds them into a basket that put the balls at waist level for physically-challenged people.
For the pitches, each student had three to four minutes to pitch and the judges each had an opportunity to ask a question.
The winning idea, “Surely,” was created by Samantha Port, living in Boca Raton, who is the daughter of entrepreneurs. Her father started a company that provides software to lawyers, and her mother started a company that consults with families about their college essays. Her grandfather, too, she says, started a food distribution company. Her idea, she explained, grew out of a conversation she had with her friends. “We order Shirley Temples (seltzer or club soda with grenadine syrup) at restaurants, but we wish we could buy them as ready-to-drink.” And as she didn’t want to get into trying to license Shirley Temple’s name, she hit on the branding idea of “Surely.”
‘THE IDEA OF IDEAS WE SAW WAS REALLY GRATIFYING’
“The array of ideas we saw was really gratifying,” says Dan Bauer, who founded the Inc. Magazine Young Entrepreneurs program as well as an education consulting firm named The MBA Exchange before selling it in 2016. He says there is a greater need and demand for business mentoring and fostering entrepreneurship at the high school level than most schools can satisfy. “There are students destined to pursue business at the college level who have a hunger for guidance and encouragement, and that’s what makes this program so rewarding.”
A number of the other ideas that came out of the participants were strong as well. Hudson Homneker, from Morristown, NJ., for example, is an avid lacrosse player and came up with “Gearodorant”, a powder-based product designed to deodorize sports equipment without leaving an oily residue that is characteristic of existing spray products. “Any family with kids playing sports knows this a huge problem because lacrosse and hockey pads generally aren’t washable,” says Homneker. “By mid-season, the stink can be really bad.” Another student hatched an idea for an in-home trash incinerator, “AshCan,” powered by lasers and captures the carbon dioxide generated.
Like these young go-getters, most of the ideas, perhaps not surprisingly, came out of the lives and experiences of the students. Dash Kwan from New York City came up with a smart-calendar time management app that allows individuals to input their daily and weekly appointments, plus class schedules, required homework time, sports and social commitments, etc., with the app helping to schedule things for maximum productivity and optimal time management.
A UNIQUE PRE-COLLEGE EXPERIENCE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE
Summer Discovery–which puts on pre-college experiences for middle and high school in partnership with prestigious universities across the US and abroad, and provides training and materials to secondary schools that want to teach entrepreneurship–ran a concurrent program at New York University. Students participated in some 20 classes–“Thinking Like An Entrepreneur,” Problem and Solution,” “Unique Value Proposition and Customer Segments,” Unfair Advantage,” “Channels and Key Metrics,” “Cost Structure and Revenue Streams,” “Fast Pitch Challenge.”
The intensive curriculum was designed by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) and taught by their certified entrepreneurship teachers. Another unique aspect of Inc. Magazine Young Entrepreneurs is the opportunity for students to actually meet the CEOs and founders of businesses featured on ABC’s Shark Tank and others named to the “Inc. 5000”, America’s fastest-growing private companies.
“An entrepreneurial skillset and mindset are valuable assets regardless of a young student’s eventual college major and full-time career,” said Adriane Thorpe, CEO of Summer Discovery. “We’re partnering with Inc., NFTE and Dan Bauer to help nurture teens as communicators, strategic thinkers, risk takers, and collaborators.”
HAVING A GOOD IDEA IS ONLY THE BEGINNING OF A LONG ENTREPRENEURIAL PROCESS
As strong as many of the ideas are coming from the students, there are gaps in their experience and learning set that probably come from still being dependent on their parents, says Bauer. One student, for example, figured to pay herself an unrealistic salary of $60 a month, and another factored in only a few hundred dollars for rent. “Those are just topics they aren’t exposed to yet as sophomores and juniors in high school yet. Learning real-life cost structures of a new business can come with time and more exposure to these kinds of experiences,” says pitch competition judge Wes Matthews.
There is much to learn as these young people pursue business and entrepreneurship, and perhaps the most valuable thing they learned is having a good idea is only the beginning of a long and difficult process full of potholes and setbacks. After all, according to the late Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, there are over 30,000 new products introduced every year, and 95% fail.
And there are no participation trophies for just trying. Entrepreneurs just keep trying until they prove to have a winning idea that pays off. Starting early, like the students at Inc. Young Entrepreneurs, only improves the chances for ultimate success.
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