Teen Entrepreneurs: The New Normal

In the 96 years since three men formed a collection of after-school business clubs in Springfield, Mass., and called it Junior Achievement, entrepreneurship courses geared to high school students have come a long way.

Responding to students’ interest, high schools increasingly include such programs as part of their curriculum. Various organizations provide entrepreneurship seminars and summer camps. Depending on the program, many students are now exposed to more than books and lectures. They are collaborating with fellow students on real products and services, meeting with mentors—even procuring money from investors.

“They see the businesses of their parents and grandparents are not the future,” says Ted Zoller, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It’s just a function of restructuring of the economy. “I think this is the new normal.”

In a Gallup survey of students in grades 5-12 released last year, 47 percent of the students said their school offered classes on how to start or run a business. The survey found that four in 10 of them plan to start a business. The ratio of racial and ethnic minority students expressing that desire was even higher—50 percent, compared to 37 percent of white students. And 38 percent of all students said they will invent “something that changes the world.”

Nowhere is that spirit more evident than among the 41 teams that competed in a national challenge hosted by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) in California last October for a chance to win thousands of dollars in venture capital and prizes.

Each of the teams advanced to the national stage after winning regional competitions. There, for example, a high school girl from Chicago came up with a device for diabetics to measure insulin in a less painful and more convenient way. A South Carolina student created an outdoors brand aimed at fly fishing enthusiasts. Texas high school students created a biodegradable golf tee made of fertilizer, and a virtual app that teaches responsibility before buying a first pet.

The winner was Lily DeBell, an eighth-grader from Baltimore who received $25,000 in cash, products and services for her business plan for all-natural, handmade dancewear for young dancers.

Even bigger money was at stake last May at Barrington High School north of Chicago, where $80,000 was awarded by local investors to five student-run businesses at a “pitch night.”

Two of the student businesses received $25,000 each. One did so for devising a technology service that allows students and parents to track their school bus at any time. The other student company designed a system for rewarding users who study collaboratively.

Barrington’s students are learning real-world skills such as problem-solving and collaboration, says their teacher, Hagop Soulakian, who was a commodity trader for 15 years at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. “A lot of kids are looking for opportunities,” he says. “This is the next big thing in entrepreneurship. The kids are learning by doing. It’s experiential learning.”

Soulakian taught five sections of a business incubator course last year, 125 students in all. He held three open houses to showcase the course, prompting several nearby high schools to add one of their own. Plus, two school districts in Colorado and another in Pennsylvania are following suit.

“We’re trying to start the innovation process earlier,” Soulakian says. Teachers, like students, “are looking for something new, something fresh,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Junior Achievement is still going strong despite the proliferation of other student entrepreneurship offerings. Today its programs reach 4.5 million students in the United States, both as extracurricular and regular school courses. “We’ve seen some incremental growth in recent years in those programs,” says spokesperson Stephanie Bell.

There are a number of reasons cited as to why there is heightened interest among high school kids in entrepreneurial studies. Thomas Gold, vice president of research and evaluation at the NFTE, cites the post-industrial economy, which is more unpredictable, fluid and tech-dependent. And, he says, schools are more concerned now about the relevance of education to careers.

“I’ve seen a huge surge in what’s called the Maker Movement,” Zoller says. With the advent of 3D printers to produce three-dimensional objects and computer numeric control routers for cutting and shaping materials, “kids are putting things together again.”

Young high-tech entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg have helped spur interest too, Bell says. “They’ve seen folks that are young be successful and make a lot of money.”

Zoller agrees. “It’s a function of the convergence of the Web,” he says. “There are so many role models. Being a geek is cool again.”

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