Startups Afterschool for high school students in Philadelphia, and the first two steps for inspiring entrepreneurship

Posted: April 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

In January, Thomas Friedman wrote the following in his NY Times column:

“Obama should launch his own moon shot. What the country needs most now is not more government stimulus, but more stimulation. We need to get millions of American kids, not just the geniuses, excited about innovation and entrepreneurship again. We need to make 2010 what Obama should have made 2009: the year of innovation, the year of making our pie bigger, the year of ‘Start-Up America.’”

I agree that an entrepreneurial spirit has been key to America’s growth to this point and that we need to make sure that entrepreneurship and innovation continues to be a critical focus. And that starts with inspiring our students to take an interest in entrepreneurship and see it as something feasible and achievable. That was why I was excited when I spoke to a high school class of aspiring entrepreneurs last week.

A team of teachers and entrepreneurs launched a program that’s running at the Science Leadership Academy this spring in Philadelphia, called Startup Afterschool. While their classmates are interning at established firms, this class of students takes a few hours each Wednesday afternoon to work on their social entrepreneurship ventures. They hear from current entrepreneurs and investors, consider markets and business models, and work on their pitches. As an entrepreneur who got my start creating products and companies in high school, I think this is a fantastic opportunity to expose students to entrepreneurship.

My enthusiasm for the program goes beyond my high school entrepreneurship experience, though. From my work helping to build the Lion Launch Pad program at Penn State, I’ve come to find that much of the current work around increasing entrepreneurship goes into building programs to help entrepreneurs move their ventures forward. Tweaking their business models, figuring out market testing, and refining investor pitches – the efforts are focused around businesses that already, in one form or another, exist.

But where do these ventures come from? In talking with students, trying to figure out how to grow the Lion Launch Pad program, I’ve realized that to truly inspire entrepreneurship, those efforts are too high level and the focus needs to drop down a few levels. Ideas are everywhere – in class, in the dorm room, or elsewhere. Some ideas have potential for new ventures or products, others don’t. Yet, it takes some self awareness and practice to realize that when you have these ideas, that they’re the identification of a pain in the market and that there could be potential for new venture creation. However, unless you’re searching for ideas or get lucky, too many of these ideas are just dismissed. And if the person with the idea realizes that the idea might have potential, where do they turn? There are actually a lot of resources available already, but it usually takes a lot of legwork to figure out who can help and where to look.

So, I have come to the realization that if we’re really truly going to work on inspiring and encouraging entrepreneurship, we need to go to focus on these issues. We need to help expose students to entrepreneurship and show that it is indeed feasible to take an idea and turn it into a new business. And that other students who sat in a seat nearby did just that, either while a student or not long after graduation – showing that it is feasible for a student to take an idea and create a sustainable new company. Then, the second part of this is to make sure that there is a centralized “clearinghouse” of entrepreneurship support, so that when one of these students walks in the front door, there’s someone to point them in the right direction, someone who knows where all of the resources are, so motivation and energy aren’t lost searching for the programs that exist to help. And this “clearinghouse” needs to have a high enough profile that students actually realize that it’s there. Many universities will tell you that they have programs to support entrepreneurs – yet the students with the ideas don’t know where to turn.

Kartikeya Bajpai, a graduate student at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology, is headed to Kenya this summer to conduct research for his dissertation focused on the roles of social networks in helping disadvatnaged youth develop an entrepreneurship mindset. We had a conversation about his research project, which I find very interesting – it looks at how youths need access to social networks for advising/funding/technology, yet many of these networks are closed to disadvantage youth. Certainly, social networks and communities are very critical in the success of entrepreneurs – you need communities for advisors and mentors, along with communities to serve as markets/customers for the eventual product or service. So, for young entrepreneurs to have these social networks and to be able to tap into them is important for their success. However, I spoke with Kartik about what I just discussed above – that, in my opinion, the two things that must be addressed first, before you should worry about the rest of the support infrastructure, are (1) figuring out how to encourage an awareness of entrepreneurship in general, so that ideas with potential are recognized and (2) an awareness of where to turn for the support needed to take the next step in the venture creation process.

At the high school level, I think a program like Startup Afterschool is ideal and is working towards these two critical elements. The program provides the exposure to entrepreneurship and a high level overview of what the new venture creation process is, along with some hands-on experience with it. Next fall, they’re launching the program at five schools across Philadelphia. I think it’s fantastic that a program like this exists for high school students and I hope that we see a growth in similar programs elsewhere. In the meantime, I look forward to continuing to work with the program to do what I can to help it reach its objectives of demonstrating the importance of entrepreneurship to students and setting them off on a lifelong journey of innovation.

What efforts to encourage student entrepreneurship have others seen? What works well?