Across the U.S., a growing movement is teaching kids to become entrepreneurs--or at least how to think like entrepreneurs. While some of these programs are extracurricular ways for enterprising kids to explore business, others are actually shaping students' core school lessons around entrepreneurship. The big idea underpinning all of them: Work has changed, and no matter what career kids ultimately pursue, they're going to have to constantly adapt and innovate in order to succeed--just like entrepreneurs do. So why not educate them that way? Here's a look at nine different approaches from around the country.
The nation's first K-12 public-school entrepreneurship program started two years ago at David Crockett High School and its feeder elementary and middle schools in Austin. The program culminates in a junior-year incubator class in which teams of students launch businesses and compete, Shark Tank-style, for $2,500 grants from local VC firm Notley Ventures. Then comes a senior-year accelerator class in which the teens run the businesses. Elementary students begin the track with a program called Microsociety, in which the whole school runs a mock small town and holds regular market days. In middle school, kids on the entrepreneurship track run an on-campus store that sells school-spirit gear such as T-shirts and beanies.
The Student Inc program at Austin's Crockett High was inspired by a four-year-old high school-only program in suburban Chicago, at Barrington High School. As in Crockett's program, juniors receive mentorship and training to launch their startups, and then get a chance to run them senior year. The program eschews traditional lecturing for a more hands-on approach, where educators and local entrepreneurs act more as advisers and the students learn by doing. Members of Barrington's business community created a nonprofit, INCubatoredu, to license its incubator class curriculum to schools around the country. More than 60 schools in 13 states have signed up.
An offshoot of Acton Academy, a growing network of affiliated private schools that function something like tech-enhanced Montessoris, the Children's Business Fair is a one-day annual event in which kids age 5 to 15 set up booths and sell goods and services they've created--everything from iced coffee to software. There were 17 Children's Business Fairs in the U.S. in 2016, and founder Jeff Sandefer, an Austin oil billionaire turned educator, expects there to be 50 this year. The biggest success to emerge from a fair so far is Me & the Bees Lemonade, a brand started in Austin eight years ago by then-4-year-old Mikaila Ulmer. She has national distribution in Whole Foods and Wegmans and scored a $60,000 investment from Daymond John on Shark Tank last year.
Founded in Houston by former Inc. 500 entrepreneur Michael Holthouse, Lemonade Day started in 2007 and now operates in 60 cities around the country. It works just like you'd think: For one day, children open lemonade stands all around a given city. Before the big day, kids go through a 14-step process to learn the basics--drawing up a business plan, figuring out their costs, setting goals, and so on. The point is simply to spark the entrepreneurial fire. "It's become a really flexible program," says Leigh Christie, the director of Lemonade Day Austin. "More and more, we see teachers and school groups bringing the idea into the classroom to teach financial literacy, or Boy Scout groups using it to earn badges for entrepreneurship. Everyone uses it a different way."
Founder Sarah Hernholm was a public elementary school teacher in San Diego when she became frustrated with the rigid curriculum. She set out to create a TV show on which kids pitch community-improvement ideas and then work to implement them, but before long the idea morphed into a non-profit. Today, WIT runs nine-month-long extracurricular classes for high-schoolers in San Diego, New York City, Austin, and St. Louis. Kids work to launch social enterprise startups and compete for funding from local investors. Along the way, they earn six units of transferable college credit from the University of California-San Diego. Student projects have addressed issues as varied as childhood obesity, food insecurity, and endangered honeybees.
"The first time I walked into CAPS, I felt like I had walked into the Stanford d.school," says Victor Hwang, the vice president of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation. CAPS is a program that started in suburban Kansas City, Missouri and has now spread to two dozen school districts around the country, mostly in the Midwest. CAPS programs (the acronym stands for Center for Advanced Professional Studies) partner with businesses and community organizations to give students hands-on experience tackling professional projects in high-demand industries such as biotech, digital media, and engineering. "Instructors create an environment where creative thinking and problem solving is encouraged," according to the CAPS guiding principles. "An innovative culture is key to fostering entrepreneurial learning and design thinking."
Housed in a co-working space in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, this public high-school program partners with local businesses to put kids to work on interdisciplinary projects. Some projects come to the school from business partners, and other ideas go from students to the businesses. Those projects cover a broad range, from providing drone services to launching a girls STEM conference to identifying potential electric-vehicle charging station locations. Kids typically attend school part-time at their home campus and part-time at BIG.
The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship started in New York City in 1987. Founder Steve Mariotti, a former South Bronx math teacher, aimed to prevent at-risk kids from dropping out of school, and he quickly found that those very students had "street smarts" that translated well to entrepreneurship. NFTE now works in low-income areas around the world. Its programs include high school entrepreneurship classes, summer programs, and camps. The classes culminate in class-wide business-plan pitch competitions--the winners go on to regional contests and then, if they qualify, a national one. Advisers to the group include heavy hitters such as LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman and Shark Tank's Daymond John.
The granddaddy of youth entrepreneurship programs, Junior Achievement has been around for nearly a century as an extracurricular program teaching kids the precepts of entrepreneurship, work force readiness, and financial literacy. "About two years ago, we decided the business model kids were experiencing through JA was more of a 1970s corporate environment," says CEO Jack Kosakowski, "so we began to re-imagine it based around the current entrepreneurial landscape. They chase capital and learn about things like crowdfunding. They research products to bring to market and learn about lean methodology. In many cases, they produce the product. It ranges from tech services to more mundane household goods that they sell, door to door or online."
In perhaps the most ambitious new JA program, the organization's Georgia chapter partnered with an Atlanta-area school district to create a school-within-a-school concept called JA Academy, in which kids' entire curriculum is built around solving business problems presented by partner companies. In the academy's first year, absenteeism decreased 75 percent, and disciplinary events decreased by 90 percent. Kosakowski likens the approach to Harvard Business School's vaunted case-study method for teaching business. "We are looking to extend the approach nationwide," he says.