While the Lean LaunchPad class has been adopted by Universities and the National Science Foundation, the question we get is, "Can students in K-12 handle an experiential entrepreneurship class?" 

Hawken School has now given us an answer. Its seniors just completed the school’s first-ever three-credit semester program in evidence-based entrepreneurship. Students are fully immersed in real-world learning during the 12-week Entrepreneurial Studies course.

Here's what Doris Korda, Associate Head of School and Tim Desmond, Assistant Director of Entrepreneurial Studies, did, and how they did it:

Teaching students to think like entrepreneurs not accountants

We realized that past K-12 entrepreneurial classes taught students "the lemonade stand" version of how to start a company: 1) come up with an idea, 2) execute the idea, 3) do the accounting (revenue, costs, etc.).

We wanted to teach our students how to think like entrepreneurs not accountants. Therefore we needed them to think and learn about two parts of a startup; 1) ideation: how to create new ideas and 2) customer development: how do they test the validity of their idea (is it the right product, customer, channel, pricing, etc.).

Our first insight was that if we broke the class in half and separated ideation from customer development, our students would understand 1) that an idea is not the company and 2) that almost all initial ideas are wrong. 

So rather than starting with the students' own business ideas, we decided to first give our students experience doing customer discovery on someone else's idea. Then, in the second half of our semester we let our students come up with their own ideas and run the customer discovery process on their own product.

Customer Discovery in the Real World

Our students first worked on real problems with two local startups that agreed to be their clients. These two startups had problems they could not solve on their own due to lack of resources--time, people, money. The startups and teaching team crafted a challenge for the kids to tackle using the customer development methodology, Lean Launchpad tools and the business model canvas.

For the first startup, we chose a three-year old, funded company that was working to refine its customer segment and channel for its physical product.  For the second startup, we chose a year-old web/mobile startup with a market of college bound teens and a founder who had skipped the initial customer validation process. These two startups served as the students' introduction to customer development methodology. Each student team conducted over 100 detailed interviews in an effort to develop results for each client.

Hawken students doing Customer Discovery in a mall

Hawken students practicing Customer Discovery in a mall.

As these were high school kids with--for the first time--a real business relying on them, this portion of the class shook the students so badly that they couldn't move from their seats, literally. All of their hardwired school habits turned to dust as the kids realized their school tools were useless: there were no solution keys, no rubrics, no answers in the back of the book. Feeling the pressure after three wasted days, one student on one team finally convinced her team they needed to get out of the building--like in Steve's video. That's when everything changed.

Knowing that they had three weeks before presenting to the company co-founders, the kids felt an intensity that no traditional classroom could generate. The pace and uncertainty of the class picked up and never let up from that point on.

The second startup, because it was in an earlier stage and more complicated than the first, had the kids going even deeper into the nine blocks of the business model canvas. When the students' customer development narratives revealed that the client's user interface was problematic, students with no programming experience began redesigning the user interface using Lean UX principles, tools and strategies.

And yet, students were still afraid to rethink the client's product: "If we tell [her] how to unclutter the interface, it will cost her a ton of money and she'll be mad at us."  

One of the students' mentors--a professional UX designe--encouraged the kids, "You have the facts. You've developed archetype and narratives from a ton of real customer interviews. You need to propose disruptive solutions. What can you propose that will solve the customers' problems and set this product apart in a meaningful way?"

This was a huge learning moment. The students' final presentations were substantive and evidence-based.

Starting Your Own Company

For the last three weeks of class, the 16 students came up with their own business ideas that they pitched to their peers. Four of these ideas moved forward in the quest for viable business models. Interestingly, the four founders of the teams whose ideas 'won' argued over which team would get the students with the most advanced technical skills. By the end of the half hour, students were suggesting that our school should offer more programming earlier in school curriculum and throughout this course.

We assigned one mentor to each of the four teams and used LaunchPad Central to hold all the details together--including hundreds of customer interviews, narratives, days in the life, archetypes, storyboards, user interfaces, live presentations and tons of often painful feedback.

Teams spent three weeks getting out of the classroom and iterated and pivoted, they put to use the visual and lean tools and all they learned from Steve Blank's Udacity lectures. Then the teams pulled together enough data and crafted compelling stories for their final 'Shark-Tank style' presentations. Teams presented to local sharks from four local accelerators: BizdomJumpStartFlashStarts and LaunchHouse (LaunchHouse actually runs the country's first kid launched/kid run accelerator for kids, called LightHouse).

Hawken students pitching the local

Hawken students pitching the local 'Sharks.'

After having practiced negotiating terms, the students calculated their companies' valuations--which ranged from $50,000 to $300,000--and wrestled with the sharks over equity. The sharks, in turn, argued with one another over the companies and even attempted to form syndication in one instance. At the close of the presentations, two teams were invited to apply for funding through local accelerators. The semester concluded with pizza and ice cream.

Pioneers are the Ones With Arrows in Their Backs

Trying to fit an Entrepreneurial Studies course into a college prep high school outside of Silicon Valley is an interesting challenge.

Being a pioneer in this space means that there's nothing familiar about this process for parents, students and the administration. Hawken is exactly the right school to attempt this but still, our high school students, parents and other teachers are steeped in more traditional classes and subjects, college placement-related pressures, graduation requirements, AP courses, grades, etc.

Creating this course felt a lot like building something totally new inside of an existing business but the course was spectacular for its students in ways that no other course is, so we're getting money and institutional support for growing it. We're learning a lot as we go. We're figuring it out.


The Entrepreneurial Studies course serves as a vehicle for the school to realize its mission: forward-focused preparation for the real world through the development of character and intellect. The 16 seniors who completed the first Entrepreneurial Studies course told us that it was different from anything they had ever done in school--all the learning was active and all the work was collaborative and team-oriented. In their evaluations they explained that the biggest lessons they learned were often about themselves--how they handled failure, their character and their own strengths and weaknesses.

From one senior: "For the first time I am working because I care. Not just for a grade."

Lessons Learned:

  • Students work harder, better and deeper when the stakes are real.
  • Working for local startups gives tstudents a great way to quickly gain business and life experience in addition to customer development experience.
  • Working for local startups creates a real world intensity and urgency in the course.
  • Kids freak out, get paralyzed and waste time in doing so. It's all part of the learning process.
  • The learning and growth of how to work well on a team is reason enough for students to enroll in Lean LaunchPad.
  • We never anticipated the amount of learning that happened during the course.
  • Even at a very progressive school, we are breaking new ground and challenging all the traditions and biases of regular school.


Published on: Mar 12, 2014