Rachel Cantor is too young to drive or vote, but she knows the basics of devising a fundraising plan and value proposition--highly useful skills for any would-be entrepreneur.
Last year, while many of her contemporaries were flipping burgers and folding T-shirts, the Winnetka, Illinois high school sophomore went to Yale. The 15-year-old spent three weeks at the Ivy League institution participating in a social-entrepreneurship themed workshop called Summerfuel.
“Repairing the world is a core value of mine and also a part of my family’s,” says Cantor, whose father works in advertising. “I’m interested in making a living doing something I’m passionate about while helping others at the same time.”
It's a far cry from your typical teen’s cashier gig. But Cantor is part of an expanding pool of young people who are lining up to join pre-collegiate, entrepreneurship-focused programs.
According to the 2011 Gallup-HOPE Index, 77 percent of students in grades 5 through 12 said they wanted to be their own boss one day, 45 percent said they planned to start their own business, and 42 percent said they would invent something that would change the world.
'Me' and Entrepreneurship
“Now, there’s a focus on the self,” Marissa Bates, Summerfuel's associate director, says of today’s youth. “They take ‘selfies,’ and the individual is very important. They realize that they don’t have to be a cog in a bigger machine.”
While pre-collegiate programs are as old as summer camp itself, programs that put a focus on entrepreneurship are picking up steam across the country. In addition to imparting real-world entrepreneurship principals--from business communications tips to leadership tactics--the goal of the programs is often to give would-be founders an early taste for entrepreneurship, if not a blueprint for startup success.
Some estimates project that high school students can now access roughly 50 entrepreneurship-focused summer programs--which, like Summerfuel, are often sponsored by third-party organizations and hosted by colleges and universities.
And the number is growing, notes William Crookston, a retired professor of clinical entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. He adds that the uptick is due in part to universities offering their own entrepreneurship-themed summer programs.
From 2006 to 2011, Crookston, for instance, led Summer@USC's Exploring Entrepreneurship program for high school students. The four-week course for high school juniors blends theory and practice in teaching students how to run a business.
“Industry summer camps are a business like anything else,” says Jill Tipograph, founder and director of Everything Summer, a summer planning consultancy based in New York City. “They ask, ‘What is it that kids and teens are doing today, and what are the courses and curriculum that we should be offering in the summer?’”
It doesn't hurt that alums like Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom attended a program called EXPLO 360 for five consecutive summers, and Seth Priebatsch, founder of SCVNGR and LevelUp, participated in EXPLO three times.
Still, “it’s a relatively new phenomenon,” says Crookston. He adds that no two programs are alike, so for prospective participants ought to do their homework before applying.
Picking Your Program
Launched in 2010 as “Leaders for Social Change,” what is now Summerfuel was more about social activism and grassroots organizing, notes Bates. The three-week, $5,495 program, which she revamped to cater to social entrepreneurs in 2013, welcomes a total of 150 domestic and international high school students to either Yale or Stanford Universities.
EXPLO has also adapted its offerings. It included business and entrepreneurship courses among other programming in the 1990s. Now, students in grades 8 through 10 can enroll in a two-week “Startup” program at Wellesley College.
The structure of Summerfuel's social entrepreneurship session is similar to that of most other programs. Students develop an “action plan” to solve a societal challenge through business. In teams, they conceptualize a social venture project and present it to a panel of experts.
For Cantor, the seed of social entrepreneurship was sewn well before she stumbled on to Summerfuel. She is a “huge fan” of the shoes and eyewear company TOMS, which has a socially conscious “One for One” model. Her SE group developed plans for a project that would eliminate food waste in Mumbai while feeding the hungry.
Long an entrepreneurial hotbed, Babson College has a program that claims to offer a more hands-on summer session--and the university grants transferrable college credit to the rising juniors and seniors who complete its requirements. This year, Dennis Hanno, the University's provost, expects the program (called Babson Entrepreneurial Development Experience) will host two sections of 40 students.
USC, the first college in the country to establish an entrepreneurship department in 1971 also grants units of USC credit to high schoolers participating in the program. Yet, Crookston shies away from making any claims that students will walk away with full-fledged business plans.
“We find that in the regular semester, we have to often postpone idea generation,” says Crookston, who notes that younger students typically need to work on the basics first. “But in teams of four in the summer, they have good ideas and turn them into functional concepts.”
Starting Up's Prospects
But progress is possible. Nicole Mar, who participated in the Babson summer program in 2013, pursued an idea for a children’s travel book series, Take A Trip. The then-16-year-old says she didn’t know much about entrepreneurship before her dad suggested she spend part of her summer at Babson, but she continued her work after finishing the program and is now publishing her first book through Amazon’s CreateSpace.
“If I don’t go into entrepreneurship, I think I want to do something like go to law school,” Mar says. “Law is very entrepreneurial, because you can have your own practice.”