As part of my efforts to foster entrepreneurism in the Metro DC area, I've gotten involved with a stellar organization called NFTE (the Network For for Teaching Entrepreneurship), which focuses on encouraging young people to be entrepreneurs (mostly high schoolers, I believe).
NFTE has a textbook that teachers can follow and a course curriculum that spans the school year where the students create a business plan and compete in a competition. The winners then advance to regional and national levels.
So far, I've judged in one regional competition and visited two DC high schools. I've realized a few key things. The first is that these kids, almost without exception, don't realize what their potential is. It seems that they've generally grown up in a world that wasn't friendly to them or their families. Any entrepreneur knows that luck is equal parts preparation, planning, initiative, and just being at the right place at the right time (as often as possible). I find that most of these students don't realize that they're in control of their own destiny, if they really choose to be. They are often resigned to following a path that others have taken, and that doesn't seem to usually include entrepreneurship.
One of the first things I really try to impress on these kids is that they could leave school that day and start making money, if they wanted to badly enough. They just have to want it.
There's absolutely nothing stopping them from achieving their goals, if they want it enough. One example I showed the kids at Eastern High School was the "Hoos Savings Club Cards" I produced & sold in college while at U.Va. (It's part of how I paid for college. The other main project I had was producing U.Va. branded Frisbees, but that's another story.)
A friend and I went around to 12 local retailers in Charlottesville, VA and convinced them to offer discounts to anyone who was carrying this credit-card sized "Hoos Savings Club" card. The card would be valid for one school year. The retailers were willing to offer the discounts because students would patronize their stores more often because of the discount.
One of the retailers offering a discount was Kroger, a grocery store chain in the area. They offered $2 off any purchase over $20; as much as a 10% discount on your grocery bill!
I literally put a folding table & chair out front of Kroger and sat there pitching cards for most of the school year. My pitch was "if you use the card 5 times in the course of the school year and save $2 each time, you've made back the cost of the card." It was very effective. We must have sold thousands of cards.
I used this example with the Eastern high school kids to show them that it's possible to create value from nothing, if you really want to. I'm not sure the message really sunk in... these kids seem so disinterested to me. It's really hard to connect with them... it's like they don't believe what you're telling them because they've never actually seen it. They don't have any good role models.
An analogy would probably be that if you had never seen an airplane, and someone told you that there was this vehicle that weighed many tons that could fly, would you believe them? I can imagine it being very hard to convince somebody that a very heavy object could fly like a bird. That's what it feels like I'm up against with these kids. I just hope some of them can see that they are in fact in control of their own destinies, and that I can play a part in helping them see it.
Yesterday a group of students from my alma mater, the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce, came to visit. They were spending a week in Silicon Valley as part of their spring break.
I've long privately urged McIntire to become more entrepreneur friendly. When I was a student at U.Va. in the late 90's, it was a very unfriendly place for entrepreneurs. It seems that things are finally changing, and the fact that these students were in California on spring break says a lot about their enthusiasm for tech startups. I've also written in the past about how high school students have seemed more receptive and responsive to becoming entrepreneurs than college students. It's almost like if one doesn't get introduced to the hunger to be an entrepreneur at young age, it becomes hard to impossible to stoke it later. But this trip made me feel like there's hope for helping people find a passion for entrepreneurship later in life. No matter what, though, I stressed to the students that came to visit that the passion had to come from within them. The best a school can do is support those that want it badly enough to try.
We spent an hour together, and I shared stories with them about how I paid for college by making UVa-branded Frisbees, and sold a card called the Hoos Savings Club Card. (It was way ahead of it's time -- basically an analog version of a daily deals service like Groupon). Here are some related pics:
I'd go around to shops in the Charlottesville area, get them to agree to provide discounts to students for the school year, print the discounts on the back of the card, and sell the card for $20 to students. For anyone in college today, it's a concept that would work just as well now as it did 15 years ago, and it's a great way to make $20k to $50k while you're in school, if you're willing to have a little bit of hustle.
Right now I'm staying up with my cousin who's a senior in high school. It's midnight on Sunday, and she's busy finishing up her homework for the weekend. There's a roll of tape on the coffee table, along with pink ribbons, a glue stick, cutout pictures from glamour magazines, and a bunch of construction paper. For her weekend psychology assignment, she has to make a book using a vocab word as the header for each page.
I rant about school every once in a while here, but the truth is that it had been a long time since I'd really experienced what school was like. I dropped out in 2001, twelve years ago. Usually I visit my cousins during school vacations, but they're in school this time, so I've had the chance to live vicariously, help with homework, and remember just why I disliked school so much.
My cousin's project, as best I can understand, and as best she can understand, is essentially busy work. She had to spend an hour or so writing some paragraphs that were related to psychology. Then she spent four or five hours finding pictures, cutting them out, printing the paragraphs, cutting them out, arranging construction paper, pasting, and binding. It's insane.
Her younger sister, a sophomore in high school, asked for help with biology. Some of the material was really relevant and useful stuff, but that material was buried in a bunch of cruft. Some questions were so ambiguous that you would have to read them two or three times just to understand what they wanted you to answer. Some questions were made difficult not to simulate real-life situations, but just because the underlying material was too intuitive and basic in its natural useful form. Then others covered material that was so insignificant that it is guaranteed to be forgotten within a week, and would have to be relearned from scratch if my cousin ever were to become a biologist.