How an unusual inner-city charter school plans to groom the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.
If you think the next generation of start-up founders will hail from Stanford, Harvard, or some other university cranking out MBAs, you might want to expand your thinking. There’s a 3-year-old inner-city high school in Chicago—filled mostly with poor African American youth—grooming students who know how to think, act, and speak like entrepreneurs.
Some of them spend as much as three hours and several bus transfers getting to and from school. Once there, they’ve got double periods of math and English to look forward to and a longer school day than any of their Chicago public school peers.
Yet enrollment in the Chicago Tech Academy is highly coveted. In fact, CTA’s fourth annual lottery takes place Feb. 23 during which 2,000 freshman students and their families will be crossing their fingers they get in for next year. Only 150 will.
“It’s a heart-wrenching experience,” says serial entrepreneur and school chairman Terry Howerton, who co-founded CTA with executive director Matt Hancock. He says the school is a beacon of hope within the Chicago public school system, which has a 52 percent drop out rate.
That’s a figure Howerton couldn’t swallow.
“I’ve been stunned at the level of societal failure that exists in some of these big cities. The fact is we have an unsustainable community if one out of every two kids doesn’t finish high school. And they’re kids who are going into our community unemployable with no network of friends and family and support.”
The birth of a start-up school
His solution? To run a high school as if it’s a start-up and its students are products and mini start-ups in their own right.
He says it really doesn’t matter where the students come from, or the fact that some of them are reading at a grade level several notches below where they should be.
“We’re going to work our hardest to influence where [they’re] going. And the way that we can do that best is not just through normal academics, it’s through teaching skills of entrepreneurship,” he says.
“Entrepreneurs have to think analytically. They have to be able to speak articulately and passionately and influence other people. Entrepreneurs have to be able to be creative and identify problems and solutions. These are soft skills that you don’t normally think about being taught at a high school but that we try our best to teach across the curriculum,” he says.
A day in the life
What exactly does this unusual focus look like in the classroom?
In addition to super-sized portions of English and Math, students spend two hours a day in a technology class during which they learn skills like programming in Java, Objective-C or C++.
Creative writing in English class is based on a real world example. For instance, next year copywriters from Groupon—clever wordsmiths who certainly have a handle on the subject—will be working with kids in the classroom.
In an entrepreneurship class students craft a business plan for their unique businesses. Once complete, they enter them into citywide competitions sponsored by organizations such as Future Founders, another Chicago-based program that encourages kids to get involved in business.
Links to the tech industry
Once a month a group of about 25 students takes off after lunch for a four-hour brainstorming session at TechNexus, a business incubator Howerton founded and where CTA was planned and birthed.
During their time there the students must come up with an idea for a viable tech start-up that fits within certain parameters. At the end of the session they present the idea to the real start-up the assignment was modeled after. Howerton says not only is this an excellent learning opportunity for the kids, but companies who’ve heard these presentations, such as online floral marketplace FlowerPetal and parking spot finder SpotHero, have been surprised at the ideas the students came up with—ones they hadn’t thought of themselves.
Students also benefit because of strong support from organizations like CompTIA, the international trade association for the IT industry that happens to be based in Chicago. Comptia facilitates connections between local tech companies and the school so that CTA students are regularly able to take field trips to companies such as Microsoft and Navteq to experience what it’s like to work in a high-tech business environment.
Speaking of Microsoft, CEO Steve Ballmer even stopped by CTA in 2010 to meet with staff and students after hearing from a Microsoft employee what the school was doing.
Preparing for after graduation
And because successful start-ups need good advisors, Howerton is working on making sure each and every student is paired up with a successful business person from the Chicago tech community—currently 125 kids have mentors, but Howerton hopes someday to pair up all 450 of them.
“When we leave high school we take for granted this network of people we know—friends, family, and people our friends and family know who can help us when it comes time to looking for a job or trying to decide what our career ought to be or starting a company and trying to find an investor,” Howerton says.
That’s why he believes possibly the most valuable thing CTA students garner while studying at the school for four years is a network of dozens of local mentors who are successful entrepreneurs and technology workers.
“When [these students] graduate, whether they go off to college or start a company or just look for a job in the [technology] industry, they’re doing so with a network of people that they would not have had if they had gone through a normal school,” Howerton says. “I think that’s pretty significant.”