On a recent Tuesday night, about 100 computer science students from Stuyvesant High School, New York City's most presitigious public math and science high school, gathered at the Foursquare offices in New York City's SoHo neighborhood. There were two draws that might lure any adolescent over the past century: free pizza and an endless supply of soda. And then there was a draw that seems oh-so-2012: the chance to rub elbows with high school alumni who work at New York-based tech start-ups.
The first-time event was created by veteran Stuyvesant computer science teacher Mike Zamansky on a simple premise: If high school students can meet entrepreneurs and tech whizzes, they might find inspiration. They might meet a mentor. They might meet their future selves.
While Zamansky isn't exactly teaching entrepreneurship, he teaches the sorts of technical skills that many tech start-ups desperately need (seriously, this is a time in which entire cities are creating campaigns to draw tech talent out of Silicon Valley). His former students have gone on to work at Twitter, YouTube, IBM, and, of course, Foursquare.
Some have started their own companies, including Benny Wong (class of '03), founder of pseudo-time travel service TimeHop (of TechStars fame). Others are shaping the next generation of tech start-ups, like former YouTube user experience designer Hong Qu (class of '95), who is a lead designer at a brand new media business called UpWorthy. Year after year, Zamansky has been able to place his students into internships using these connections.
"When you have kids creating imaginary products and mock companies in an afternoon or a weekend, what are they really walking away with? It's an artificial experience," says Zamansky. "Kids at this age can develop a deep understanding of a skill, and they're eager to connect with the real world—especially in tech. So let's help them."
In other words, it's time to let the high schoolers sit at the big kids' table.
"The only reason I am where I am is because of Stuyvesant," says David Blackman (class of 2002), now a Foursquare developer. "Yeah, college was important, but in high school you develop your identity. Tech was part of my make up by the time I got to college. I think it's important to let the current students know what's really possible down this path."
None of this is exactly brand-new educational theory. In most industries, real-world experience trumps a lesson on a white board. But in the start-up world, more and more organizations are looking earlier than college to mold young talent, exposing high schoolers to entrepreneurism through events, mentorships, and internships.
The "Chi Tech" Model
Perhaps the best-known example is Chicago's Tech Academy, famous for its entrepreneurial and tech heavy curriculum. The high school, which draws 77% of its students from low-income homes, partners with more than 100 tech companies for field trips, inspiration, and mentorship. Most recently, the school teamed up with Microsoft, allowing some students to tour the offices, problem solve with employees, and meet CEO Steve Ballmer.
With only 450 total students, the extra-curricular activities make a big impact. For example, they provide a special brainstorming session at a local incubator, in which students are charged with coming up with a viable tech start-up and then presenting it to tech start-ups for feedback. It brings them from classroom to "real world."
Finding Success Outside the Classroom
A few initiatives—created outside the education world—have also recently garnered attention.
In March, the White House announced an internship initiative called SummerQAmp, that seeks to place underprivileged teens (but also going up to age 24) in internships at tech companies. The kids won't be coding or programming, but will be learning QA, or quality assurance. The initiative was led by GroupMe, a mobile messaging app based in New York City, but includes a long list of well-known start-ups, including publishing platform OnSwipe and Gilt Groupe, a fashion flash-sale site, which are also based in New York City.
"It gives us an opportunity to introduce QA to those students who will be entering the workforce over the next few years," said Gilt's Kevin Haggard, vice president of quality engineering. "This initiative will help us fill these QA position in the U.S. instead of sending them abroad."
But the students aren't the only ones benefiting from early internships. Internet TV start-up Boxee's founder and CEO Idan Cohen has actually been enlisting high-school help for a few years now.
"What we discovered was that we can actually learn a lot from the presence of a 14-year-old kid in the office," says Cohen. "We learned how, when and where he consumes media and on TV and his computer, which was an unexpected benefit."
While this seems to be a successful way to lasso youth into the start-up world, at least one person is cautiously optimistic.
"Getting high schoolers involved in the start-up world is great, but we need to really watch and measure what strategies are successful and which aren't—which of these kids actually go on to be entrepreneurs," says Daryll Williams, the Kauffman Foundation's director of research and policy. "Seems to me, at any age, the more immersive the situation the more successful it will be."
And whatever happened to those Stuyvesant high schoolers networking at Fourquare's office? A few ended up with a foot in the door at some of New York City's burgeoning tech companies, including cloud service Digital Ocean, and Web developer Funny Garbage.
And who knows, maybe one of those students will be the next Dennis Crowley.