There are many good reasons for setting up an entrepreneurial classroom or entrepreneurship program (or school if you’re able to), especially for high school students. For starters, entrepreneurship programs within schools and communities have been shown to help curb dropout rates. Maybe that’s because entrepreneurship education is more hands-on, and more adaptable to students’ needs, creativity, and interests than some of the more traditional curriculum they’re taught.
Through entrepreneurship, high school students learn more than just skills and strategies for starting businesses. They learn a mindset that is critical to their future success in our ever-shifting economy, where innovation and real problem-solving are the keys to ensuring they remain competitive no matter what the job market has in store. The entrepreneurial mindset — focused on unpacking and understanding problems, coming up with creative solutions, executing on ideas, and balancing big picture with incremental milestones — is invaluable as some of the standard skills-based jobs of the past start to fade away due to automation, machine learning, and other tech advancements.
By igniting an entrepreneurial fire in today’s youth, and showing them how to harness it, you’ll give them the tools to be masters of their own lives and destinies.
Setting up an entrepreneurial classroom or an entrepreneurship program goes beyond simply doing some business-related coursework within the school day. Making the environment conducive to entrepreneurship and to fostering the right mindset requires an all-encompassing approach that can sometimes be hard to pull off within the confines of a traditional school or educational setting.
In this post, I’ll offer some pointers on starting an entrepreneurship class or program in your school, gleaned from my trials and errors at LaunchX.
Start with a Growth Mindset
In order for entrepreneurial programs to succeed, they must be founded on the same mindset they’re trying to teach. And for that to happen, the person(s) doing the teaching must not only understand, but also adopt, the entrepreneurial mindset. You must walk the walk. Be prepared for trial and error, exploration, pivoting when something doesn’t work, and really getting at the root of problems instead of just seeking the most expedient “right” answers to them. It’s important to have good structure, along with lessons and projects that foster entrepreneurship, but it’s equally important to be able to make changes when they’re needed. You need to be authentic and ready to learn with and from your students as they learn. This goes against the traditional mindset and expectations in a school environment, where teachers and administrators are seen as authority figures in a hierarchy where students are at the bottom.
This is the concept of Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck and is backed by significant research that has shaped our understanding of learning. Teacher practice has a big impact on student mindset, and the feedback that teachers give their students can either encourage a child to choose a challenge and increase achievement or look for an easy way out. Educators who choose the challenge of providing an the entrepreneurial environment for their students set a positive example in developing a growth mindset, putting in effort and showing humility that their work does not always need to be polished, thereby allowing students the freedom to explore, grow, and ultimately reach higher achievement through developing a growth mindset.
Be prepared for students who might at first be resistant to entrepreneurship, because it goes so against the ways in which schooling is usually structured (and is therefore difficult to process). Students’ expectations are that they’ll have clear-cut instructions, a set way they’re supposed to do things, and an expected outcome. Much of that needs to be left at the door when they walk into your classroom or entrepreneurship program.
It also helps if you, as the teacher, are interested in entrepreneurship. Go to events, take courses, learn about it on your own so that you can understand it. And believe in it, and in your students!
Build an Ecosystem and Network
One of the first things to remember about entrepreneurship is that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. No matter how small, startups don’t get off the ground without some external support, whether that be from mentors, advisors, business leaders, or others. And because a school setting is a different place than the “real world” of business, it’s sometimes necessary to reach outside of the school environment to really power the entrepreneurial spirit in your students so that they recognize that the classroom teachings have real merit.
Seek out community involvement to help your students get a more well-rounded picture of entrepreneurship. Engage local business leaders to first advise you on some of the things that to incorporate and avoid when building the foundations for entrepreneurship, then to advise student businesses when the time comes. Business leaders who’ve been in the position of starting out themselves can be some of your most valuable resources.
Grade the Process and Feedback, Not Busy Work
Part of the reason entrepreneurship is so hard to teach in a school setting is that crafting assignments and grading that are reflective of a real startup is extremely difficult. Students may interview potential customers about their needs and frustrations, but then how should a teacher grade the students' reflections on those discussions? When a team develops a prototype for their product that is functional, should the grade reflect that it looks good, is a viable business, or is creative?
Remember, your role as an educator is to encourage students to learn throughout the process. This means that the "reward" system of grades needs to align with allowing students to get feedback and push their thinking. Teams / students who interview a lot of potential customers and learn a lot of new things about the customer needs should be rewarded, where teams / students who only interview a few people and come out of the interviews with the exact same plans and ideas as they went in with should not get as high of a grade. Similarly, the value of a startup's prototype is in using it to test with customers, so teams who have a very simple mockup but who learn a lot by testing with customers should be recognized for their efforts.
For students to truly learn about and immerse themselves in the entrepreneurial mindset, they need to be able to do things the real way. They need to be able to pivot. They need to be building toward something, but then also realize that when they get the grade or they complete the task, it’s not the end. It’s only part of the journey.
To make your entrepreneurship class or program more realistic, provide support through some of the following:
- Company examples: Exposure to real businesses, via case studies and live interaction with business leaders in the community.
- Speakers: Bring in people who can speak to the various aspects of running a business (marketing, business development, fundraising, customer acquisition and retention. etc.).
- Startup activities: Create an activity that builds on a particular speciality.
- Field trips: See if your student teams can tour a co-working space to get a sense of the reality of startup life.
- Mentors: Provide teams with mentors from a handful of local businesses (or non-local ones if you can connect with some folks virtually). Have those same few business leaders come in a few times throughout the students’ entrepreneurial journey to facilitate mock pitches.
Feedback WITHOUT grades. Because students are so used to performing for grades, and entrepreneurship doesn’t offer the same measurements and rewards system, it’s important to get them used to the notion that grades are not an indicator or predictor of entrepreneurial success. Instead, ensure that students are seeing success by setting milestone targets, goals, and working to meet them. Also, by working through the stickier/trickier aspects of starting a business. Make feedback meaningful, and make sure at least some of it comes from mentors and advisors. And don’t forget to allow for internal team feedback, as well.
No penalties for getting it “wrong” only for not retrying.
Encourage passionate pursuit of interests and ideas.
Encourage depth and specialization.
Encourage smart, calculated risk-taking.
Encourage Inquiry and Experimentation
Students are less often tasked with asking questions, than they are with answering them. In fact, the vast majority of traditional education revolves around students being asked questions that some person or governing body (the teacher, school district, state board of education, etc.) deems important. But entrepreneurs don’t just answer questions, they also ask them. All founders have to learn how to ask the right kinds of questions, and determine for themselves what those are, instead of simply responding to questions that someone else decided were valuable.
So, encourage students to really explore the big questions that mean a lot to them. Make sure they ask not just “how” and “what”, but also “why”. You can provide guidance when they’re stuck on what kind of business they want to start by asking some open-ended questions of your own such as:
What are the biggest global problems you want to solve?
Why are you passionate about/interested in this particular problem?
Which unique outlook, knowledge, skills or frame of reference will you bring to solving that problem?
Why do you want to create this product/launch this service/build this app?
Which aspect of this work is most appealing?
The framework of an entrepreneurial classroom has to be grounded in experiential learning. This means stepping away from the textbooks and worksheets at times, and letting students form ideas, build prototypes, experiment.
In most traditional classrooms where experimentation is done (say a science class), students are asked to take certain steps to produce a very specific outcome. For instance, mixing certain chemicals together to produce a reaction. If the reaction doesn’t happen, they’ll know they’ve gone wrong somewhere and hopefully be able to determine where by backtracking.
Entrepreneurship isn’t always as clean. You can suspect and project what the outcome of putting together certain strategies will be, but there are always variables that you cannot see. And the outcome may not be exact. For instance, you can project that a certain marketing campaign will yield you 200 new customers, but you may not be able to predict the particular campaign going viral and netting way more, or the campaign having to be put on hold due to a major event that occurs. There aren’t formulas.
Ask for Your Customers' (Students') Input
Empower students to share their stories and skills, even those that have seemed irrelevant in a school setting before. Its out of students’ passions and creative thinking that they’ll discover their entrepreneurial potential and make their big impacts on the world.
Collaboration over competition. Entrepreneurship is collaborative. Founders’ priorities early on are to get something off the ground and market-ready. They should not be worried about competition until they begin to sell their product or service (although of course they should be doing market research and be aware of the landscape before that). For that reason, it’s important to emphasize the collaborative nature of building a business from the ground up.
Collaboration can get a bad rap in the classroom setting because students sometimes think of group projects where one or two people with the loudest voices or strongest ideas (or best work ethic) end up doing all of the work. Startups can’t (successfully) function that way. Instead, every student on a team or in a group must be able to bring something unique and useful to the endeavor. Structure your groups such that every person can contribute in their own unique way. That is, don’t pack a team full of visionaries who all have big ideas and each want to execute their own idea, but have no product or customer focus. Group people with complementary strengths together, instead of all people who are good at the same things.
Encourage students to help each other out, even if they aren’t working on the same business. Reinforce the fact that it’s not about “beating” the other groups, or about “winning”, it’s about everyone doing their best work and getting excited about each other’s innovations. Create a culture that breeds camaraderie and not competition.
Once you have the foundation (mindset, a framework) for your entrepreneurial classroom, you’ll need to set up activities and lessons to get the wheels turning in your students’ heads. Hopefully, you’re able to get a lot of help from the business leaders you’ve conferred with and they can point you toward some exercises they find helpful. If not, or if you need more support, there are hundreds of resources that include lesson plans, projects, found online.