What If…. Youth Entrepreneurship and Education

I have been reading and listening a lot lately to people talking about how best to educate our young people so that we continue to thrive as a nation, and they thrive as individuals. This post is not a finished, absolute opinion. Sometimes I write to figure out how my thoughts sound when given a voice. I read it out loud a few times, looking for weaknesses. And now that I have this blog, I write it to see if anyone has anything to add, examples to provide, or a way to refine or redirect.

Last week, I went to a lunch given by the Colorado Children’s Campaign to hear Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff of The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard (www.developingchild.harvard.edu) speak about early childhood education and the new approaches growing out of greater understanding of brain development. He wrote From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. I recently watched a very cool video produced by the Colorado Legacy Foundation (http://colegacy.org/2012/04/elo_video/) about how we need to think outside the box to create more successful schools. I am reading two different books about raising more innovative, entrepreneurial kids. The first is World Class Learners by Yong Zhao. The second is Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer.

And while my family has made multiple loans to small businessmen and women in developing countries via Kiva.com, I create and sell Global Giving Kits to get young people engaged in philanthropy through online giving sites, while also providing them with lessons and crafts related the country they choose to support with a loan. I have also edited case studies about some of the most effective youth employment and entrepreneurship programs in places like China and Bangladesh for NGOs like Plan International, ImagineNations and Making Sense.

Until now, they have all been very distinct projects, each generating thought within their own silos.

In my head – so it must be true in others more immersed than I am in this – they all seem to be coming together suddenly. Better schools in the U.S., improved graduation rates, addressing parent and family needs as part of educating the child, youth employment, inspiring innovation and igniting the imagination, the developing countries’ focus on entrepreneurship as a means of lifting young people – and then their communities – out of poverty.

The concept just forming in my head already exists. It has already been tried in multiple forms. It is already succeeding in some.

In the first few pages of World Class Learners, Yong Zhao says that you can’t teach the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation. There are some people who are just going to be better at it. I believe that, just like there are some people better at math than I am, or some people better at acting or playing the violin. We all have innate talents, yes, but, as Zhao later points out, it doesn’t mean we can’t be taught to play, to be competent at any of it. All we need are the right tools and the right teachers.

So what if you founded a small charter or scholarship-based high school in an inner-city community whose mission was to graduate entrepreneurs with a functioning business? Or we created a competition within a single school, where the winners could participate in a different learning program with this mission? What if math and literacy were taught with running a business in mind? What if part of educating the child in this way including educating his or her parents so that they could work for the young person’s business, giving them new employable skills as well? The scientists at the Center for the Developing Child certainly believe that increasing the employability of the parent has a direct effect on the school success of the child.

Bringing families together in the effort to support the family cannot be a bad thing in underserved communities either, right? Isn’t it the way we used to do it on farms and small shops across the country?

What if we looked at those programs in the developing world that are supporting young people in terms of employment and entrepreneurship as models for how to prepare our own young people? The best practices and many lessons learned already exist for us. In the U.S., we have spent so many years trying to make sure all children receive an equal education, moving toward a country-wide core curriculum measured by federally-given tests. The intention is a good one. But we are realizing that an equal education does not deliver equal opportunity or even equal chances of success in school. As we see in poorer nations, the best thing for their young people seems to be providing a path to owning a small business. Then their success drives their children to school, where they are in a better position to learn, show up every day, build off their parents’ knowledge, but strive for something different academically. Maybe that is the case in some neighborhoods or cities or states here too. For those of us in the U.S. that is a scary door to open, but what if it worked?

In Denver, the Young Americans Bank (http://www.yacenter.org), runs classes and camps, including Owning a Business Toolkit, for kids that help to educate them about managing money or starting their own businesses. What if we expanded on some of their curricula? Or leveraged the sustainable schools model, where schools generate their own energy or market goods created or grown by the students to help fund its own programs?

What if you paired up each young person in the program with a committed mentor in the business community with weekly emails and monthly meetings between the two at the school? What if part of the expected coursework was raising the money to start a business or keep the program sustainable and tuition-free? What if to graduate, each student (or group of students) had to have an operating business, in addition to passing the basic reading, writing and math tests? What if a parent or grandparent had to commit to a class each semester to keep the student enrolled? What if the school provided daycare or homework help for siblings during those classes?

This idea is out there. And it has proved successful globally. Teach a Man to Fish (http://teachamantofish.org.uk) has created fully sustainable, tuition-free schools in Paraguay, Kenya, Uganda, and Nicaragua and Bolivia, where students run small businesses that fund the school, learning required entrepreneurial skills in the process alongside the traditional academic curriculum. There are also schools in the U.S. combining traditional academics with entrepreneurial programming.

We keep saying that our poor are not as bad off as the impoverished in developing countries. We keep saying it costs more money to start a business in this country than in the ones that Kiva supports. We keep saying our schools are failing and our students are less and less competitive. We keep saying that a successful school may need to address the needs of the entire family, providing parenting classes, evening daycare, health clinics and more. We keep saying that we need to figure out a way to open up our kids’ minds to innovative thinking. We keep talking about “responsible citizenship.” We keep saying that the world and this new global economy really needs more entrepreneurs.

It is all coming together in my head.


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