Are entrepreneurs born or made? Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) interviewed Kristina Scala, founder and president of Aspen Academy, an independent school operating an entrepreneurial institute for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. We asked Kristina about the program and how it teaches the foundations of entrepreneurship. Here's our conversation:

Tell us about Aspen Academy.

We're an independent school with a strong focus on academic rigor, character, leadership, entrepreneurial development and community strength and service. Our 400 pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students exemplify our core values: Be kind, do good, work hard and make the world a better place. We offer a personalized approach to instruction with a goal of developing passionate, lifelong learners who graduate from our school empowered to be confident, curious and innovative.

What sparked the formation of the Aspen Entrepreneurial Institute (AEI)?

We believe a lack of financial literacy can be a major contributor to the country's larger debt crisis, both collectively and individually. Unfortunately, many schools do not cover this topic and its everyday applications. If the more than 50 million American students in grades K-12 were taught a sequenced financial management curriculum, we would grow into a nation that could expand and sustain our economy.

At AEI, we educate students about sound financial practices, so they'll understand how to be responsible with their money. Every kindergartner through eighth-grader participates in AEI for 30 minutes each Monday and Friday, learning grade-appropriate concepts in economics, personal financial literacy, project and organizational leadership, management, innovation and entrepreneurship. Students learn everything from the difference between wants and needs, to budgeting, writing a business plan and investing in the stock market.

Is it true that Aspen Academy has its own version of Shark Tank?

Yes! Every eighth-grader works with a community mentor to develop a business idea, write a business plan, and hone their pitch over the course of about five months. This opportunity shows students that ideas can become actual prototypes and products. Whether or not they become entrepreneurs in the future, our students graduate with the confidence, ability and experience to create something from nothing.

One of the biggest surprises is how well-developed the student pitches have become. Students are passionate about what they've created; they speak eloquently about everything from the financial aspect to the social impact their product creates. I'm also surprised by how thoughtfully and confidently they answer the judges' questions.

Each year the businesses become more innovative and creative. Many students make a profit and continue their businesses into high school. Some of our judges are so impressed with the products and services that they have invested their own money in student businesses.

What other real-world lessons do your students learn through experience?

Within AEI, each grade level creates a class business by writing a business plan, producing a product, and selling them at our Entrepreneurial Expo. Every class also has a mini-economy, where students apply for jobs and are responsible for everyday tasks and duties. Students get paid and in turn must pay bills, including rent and WiFi, and can choose to save or spend leftover money on items such as lunch with a teacher or sitting in a special chair in class.

Our seventh and eighth graders run the student store, café, broadcast network and publications divisions as part of Bear's Student Enterprises (BSE), which are five student-owned and operated divisions on campus. The fifth division is an executive team that oversees all of BSE and is a fully functioning C-suite that runs weekly Level 10 meetings. The students work with the school accountant to develop profit and loss statements and monthly budgets. They also develop marketing strategies, run the daily operations of each business and develop and present the BSE annual report to the Aspen Academy Board of Trustees. 

Students graduate with experience and financial knowledge, and at the very least have learned to manage themselves, both financially and with great character and leadership. Many of our alumni have created and developed new businesses in lieu of working typical high school jobs, and they have the confidence and knowledge to start clubs and after-school activities.

What three tools can every parent use to promote entrepreneurial learning at home?

  1. A bank account. It's important for every student to have a bank account that they can help manage. Each time they earn or receive money, discuss how much should be saved, spent or shared. Emphasize the importance of setting financial goals, balancing a budget and having a rainy-day fund for emergencies.
  2. Household responsibilities. Students benefit from having responsibilities at home as members of their family community. This teaches work ethic, and it helps children understand that we all have responsibilities and obligations. These habits will eventually filter to their lives outside of the home.
  3. Time for free play and creativity. Entrepreneurs are built on imagination, creativity and curiosity. Take away the "stuff' and give children time to invent games and activities.