Jennifer Snelling
Encouraging enterprise: Students garner real-world skills from entrepreneurial undertakings

When you hear the words “student entrepreneur,” you might envision a lemonade stand run by a youngster selling sips for a cause. Or perhaps the digital age version – a young app designer who creates a simple solution to track homework assignments. In fact, there are students worldwide who are taking cool ideas and turning them into real-world businesses.

Take Sean McCulloch, a high school sophomore who started his own clothing line. Or Brooke Martin whose videochatting device for pets has been purchased by thousands.

Just what happens with these students that allows them to take an idea and make it into a project with real-world applications? Is there a way to teach an entrepreneurial mindset? A way to encourage the creativity and drive that happens seemingly randomly for a few students and have it spark more often across many?

If teachers want to encourage entrepreneurial thinking in students, there are some big ideas that will bring entrepreneurism to the front of the classroom, says Adam Bellow, founder of eduTecher.com, ISTE 2011 Outstanding Young Educator of the Year and a keynote speaker at ISTE 2013 in San Antonio.

“The very nature of being a student is trying to find your way to something, whether an assignment, project-based learning, or a project like starting your own business or creating your own app,” he says. “You’re always finding ways to iterate, ways to mess things up, and what it means to create for a purpose.”

Suzie Boss, education consultant, author and ISTE member, says entrepreneurism is an essential skill for 21st century learners. Boss’s ISTE book Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age, looks at the types of literacy, beyond the traditional definition, that students need to be ready for the real world.

“Entrepreneurial thinking is one of those ways,” she says. “How do we create opportunity? How can we come up with something new and original that would solve some need?” she asks. “How do you create opportunities for yourself and other people? In a world where the rapidly changing market means few people stay in the same job for their entire career, these are important skills,” says Boss.

Creating wtih a purpose

One of the best ways to start is to encourage students to create with a purpose. At 13, Quin Etnyre of California was tinkering with electronics, learning how to use sensors with a breadboard and wires, and saw a shortcut, a much easier way for beginners to learn how to use electronics.

With a purpose in mind, Quin combined Arduino code with electrical engineering and began making prototypes. Once he had a product, Quin researched how to start a business. Now, at 14, he has his own product, the ArduSensor, which features kits that allow users to solder and break apart electronic components at home. ArduSensor offers eight different types of sensors, including magnet, temperature, light, button, etc. so that users can experiment with the Arduino prototyping electronics platform. Quin’s invention is the basis for his company, Qtechknow (qtechknow.com). He has also leveraged his knowledge to teach electronics classes to alumni at MIT.

Quin put a lot of work into his product, but it all started with a “light-bulb moment,” a split second where he identified a need and discovered an intention.

“To get at the heart of being an entrepreneur, we want students to have a purpose,” says Bellow. “You want an assignment to speak to passion. If you challenge students to do something they care about, you speak to a part of them that is going to be more creative and therefore more entrepreneurial.”

Open-minded classrooms

Of course, students are likely to be much more interested in a project when they have a personal stake in it. Sometimes this means teachers have to get out of their comfort zone and become facilitators rather than instructors. How many teachers would feel competent to teach Quin Arduino code?

“The moment you become a great teacher,” says Bellow, “is the moment you realize you don’t know everything. For teachers, being able to say, ‘I don’t know, but let me look around’ as opposed to saying ‘no’ to the pro-ject, is key.”

Educator Raleigh Werberger has spent the last several years developing project-based programming that encourages entrepreneurism. While working as a teacher and administrator at Mid-Pacific Institute in Honolulu, Hawaii, he asked each group of ninth grade students to start a tabletop aquaponics system to teach people about ecosystems. He realized pretty quickly that students didn’t have a lot of buy-in because he had set up too many parameters. Werberger rethought the class and decided that he needed a better hook, a way to make the project more real for the students.

In conjunction with members of the business community, he set up his own “Shark Tank,” based on the television program where budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to successful business people who decide if they’d be willing to make an investment.

Each group of students pitched their version of the aquaponics system to members of the Hawaii business community, and the winners walked away with $1,500 to start their own businesses.

He had one student who spent the night disassembling his sister’s hair dryer to figure out how to bend the plexiglass to make a round kit. This was a kid who could barely read, says Werberger, but he found a lot of enthusiasm for this project.

Werberger didn’t start the project as an expert on aquaponics. Rather, he saw himself as a facilitator of the students’ ideas. He brought in experts from outside, including architects, marketers, representatives from the local makerspace and contractors. “As a teacher,” says Werberger, “you never have to be a master of the resource you’re giving them. Some of the kids are good at web building or technology interfacing. Someone will always step up and show everyone how to do it.”

Feedback has a high value

Suzie Boss agrees. It’s pretty easy to get a mix of experts to donate their time – an hour or an afternoon – in the classroom, giving kids advice about their projects. It’s important to get feedback from as many sources as possible – not just experts, but potential consumers.

In addition to using social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to find potential customers outside your immediate community, Boss recommends Google Hangouts, Skype in the Classroom and Comments for Kids (comments4kids.blogspot.com), an online effort to solicit feedback for kids’ work.

Displaying a project in a classroom is very different than having it posted on Facebook. “[With social media] we have an authentic audience that doesn’t just receive, but gives feedback,” says Bellow. “If you ship it out but can’t get feedback, then you don’t know how to make it better.”

Feedback was very important to Brooke Martin, inventor of ICPooch (icpooch.com). Brooke’s dog, Kayla, had separation anxiety when the family left her alone. Brooke, who was 12 at the time, had an idea for a device that would let her video chat with Kayla and dispense a treat. “We have all this technology to bring us together with people,” says Brooke. “What about our pets?”

Brooke had found her purpose. She sketched out ideas, built prototypes in her garage and contacted professional computer programmers to help her with the app. Pretty soon, she had a product, the ICPooch.

Things really started to happen for Brooke when she attended a Startup Weekend (startupweekend.org) run by Up Global in her hometown of Spokane, Washington. Startup Weekends are 54-hour entrepreneurial events where people pitch their ideas and the winners get to work with a team of professionals. Out of 39 adults, it was 12-year-old Brooke who got a standing ovation and the most votes. She followed up that experience by being invited to pitch the ICPooch on the real “Shark Tank” television show and being honored by Discovery Education’s Young Scientist Challenge.

After her parents confirmed her commitment to the project, the family decided it was time to try a Kickstarter campaign. The first time around, Brooke was unsuccessful. Although discouraged, she decided to try again. She listened to feedback from mentors and other businesspeople. Whereas the original campaign focused on the scientific components, she focused the second more on the love people feel for their pets and the fact that she was a young entrepreneur. Today, she has sold almost 3,000 units.

Boss points out that resources such as Kickstarter, Indigogo and other crowdfunding sources are great for young entrepreneurs. “One of the signs of really deep engagement is that kids don’t want to stop working on their projects,” she says. “Kickstarter takes that entrepreneurial spirit out of simulation mode and into the real world. It lets kids find out if people are willing to invest in their idea.”

Failure as a part of the process

Brooke’s experience also demonstrates the adage that you can’t succeed if you don’t try. Bellow believes that trying and trying again is a vital part of the process of being entrepreneurial. “Here’s the problem. How do we solve it? When we do that in a cycle, we become entrepreneurial,” he explains. “When you’re able to try something, not succeed, evolve, then try again until you succeed – that’s what being entrepreneurial is about.”

Like Brooke, 15-year old student Sean McCulloch of Eugene, Oregon, saw a gap in the market. Sean started making designs for T-shirts after being introduced to Adobe Illustrator in a computer class at school. Sean compares his streetwear-style shirts to popular brands such as Supreme and Stussy, but says his shirts are more affordably priced. He first tried producing the T-shirts at home, but he wasn’t satisfied with the quality.

He sought out a professional printer to produce his shirts. Initially, he says, he knew nothing about business. But he did a lot of research online, started learning about profit margins, and worked over the summer as a lifeguard so that he could earn the money to start his own business. His Authentic Brand (authenticbrand.bigcartel.com) shirts went on sale in October.

“When my first try at T-shirts failed,” says Sean, “it taught me that it takes a lot of dedication to keep a business running. I’ve also learned how to talk to adults about my business. A year ago, I would have been too shy to do this interview so it’s helped my confidence a lot.”

Self-confidence is only one of the potential benefits of entrepreneurial education. Project-based learning can help involve students who have trouble engaging in a traditional classroom. For instance, Brooke describes her educational experience as challenging. “It’s the norm to stick to the curriculum,” she says. “And I’m an out-of-the-box kind of thinker.”

What does she see as the ideal environment in a classroom? “A teacher who nurtures a student’s passion and encourages them to take that passion to whatever length their heart desires.”

In fact, Quin is so passionate about the idea of making as education, he and his father approached the school board in 2013 to ask if the district could begin a maker class at his high school. He talked about his invention and pointed out that he didn’t create it in school. The board saw the value of promoting a DIY electronics program and now there’s one at his high school. “Just make something,” he advises other kids. “It doesn’t have to be electronics, just make something.”

Whether or not kids end up with an invention that can be marketed or a discovery that leads to real-world applications, there are benefits from learning to think like an entrepreneur. Besides financial literacy, media savvy and self-confidence, Bellow says, “When you are entrepreneurial, you are learning to do real-world work. It’s not just creating the next big digital thing.”

For her future, Brooke hopes to continue in science and business, possibly combining the two fields when she grows up. “That’s where my passions lie,” she says. “I’m going to see what opportunities present themselves.”

Now, that’s thinking like an entrepreneur.

Jennifer Snelling is a freelance writer who writes for a variety of publications and institutions, including the University of Oregon. as a mother to elementary and middle school-aged children, she’s a frequent classroom volunteer and is active in Oregon schools.