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How to Teach Kids to Be Entrepreneurs, Not Followers

A group of California high school students is demonstrating the future of education with an extracurricular club they call the Paly Entrepreneurs Club. This is the kind of thing we need to see more of in schools across the country. It shouldn’t just be entrepreneurial extracurricular clubs. It should be Entrepreneurship 101, at the high school or even middle school level. From an early age, we should be teaching kids to think for themselves, outside the box: big, game-changing ideas. These kids are showing us the way.


Mr. Slipper, who plans to attend the University of California, Santa Barbara in January after a stint in R.O.T.C. boot camp, demonstrated his video-sharing app, speaking quickly so as to leave time for everyone to talk about their ideas before the lunch bell rang…

“How will you protect your intellectual property?” asked Aaron Bajor, 18, one of the group’s founders. He was waiting to discuss a diagram of his own project, a social network for entrepreneurs entering college.

“Someone can always copy your idea, but that will be half-baked,” Mr. Slipper said confidently. “It’s not theirs.”

James Maa, another club founder, was up next to discuss his project, the study group social network.

“We’re not out in public yet,” he said, apologetically. Mr. Maa, 18, plans to study computer science at the University of California, Berkeley in the fall. His social life, which included attending many events for start-ups, had gotten in the way of building the network, which he calls Bubble.

Not everyone had a project to present, and that was acceptable.

“The goal here is inspirational,” said Mr. Bajor, who is headed to the University of Southern California to study entrepreneurship. “A great idea can hit you any time. Even if you do not have a great idea yet, if you have capabilities and passion others will want you on their team.”

America’s big box schools mostly still train American kids to sit still and follow directions. The structure of school teaches kids to wait patiently for promotion at the end of the year. And it socializes them to think of learning as a process that involves memorizing material and repeating it on demand. The creativity that American education at its best teaches isn’t entrepreneurial creativity, unfortunately; it’s the manipulation of abstract symbols and ideas. It’s an education that, at the upper levels, teaches kids to be bureaucrats and followers. They learn that the way to change the world is to work for a non-profit and the way to manage your career is to find a place in a big organization and fit in.

This isn’t just a matter of the curriculum, or even of the big box mentality of lifelong teachers (though we could use more free range people in education so that kids aren’t overexposed to a limited selection of personality types and life outlooks during the educational process). It’s about the inherently bureaucratic structure of the system in which our young people spend such a huge proportion of their most formative and impressionable years.

What American kids really need to know is how to be entrepreneurs. Even if you work for somebody else these days, you need to think of yourself as an entrepreneur building your brand and steering a business. That’s going to be even more true in the future.

What these kids are doing in this club is what a lot of kids need to be doing in class. Like so much of American life, our school system doesn’t just need to be tweaked; it needs to be re-imagined, and we still have a long way to go.

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  • thibaud

    This is yet another of those Friedman-esque notions that fires the imagination of otherwise sophisticated people who don’t understand entrepreneurship or who, being entrepreneurs, don’t understand how hard it is to teach small children.

    For starters, you can’t teach entrepreneurship. You can teach programming, or product marketing, or principles of good user interaction and design, but you can’t “teach” an outlier mentality that combines extreme determination, focus, and an unusual disposition toward risk.

    How would young Bill Gates have benefited from a middle school course on “entrepreneurship”?

    At the other end of the funnel, which of the successful entrepreneurs who are B-school grads ever mentions his courses at Stanford or Wharton in “entrepreneurship”?

    Given that our schools do such a mediocre job of inculcating basic skills, it would seem our first order of business should be on ensuring that every American be able to write a complex sentence, follow an argument, make valid judgments about basic data sets, know basic facts about the Constitution and who won the Civil War, etc.

  • thibaud

    To clarify: you can’t teach entrepreneurship in the classroom, but _apprenticeships_ are a great idea.

    Perhaps there’s a Ycombinator or 500 Startups-style approach that can work here. But, as it relates to the SCHOOLS, this would entail a variation on the old vocational ed model (as opposed to some set of whiz-bang, TommyF new pair-o’-dimes…)

  • David Billington

    Mr. Mead – Your comments point to a need but the example you cite is also emblematic of the problem.

    Everyone in the club assumes that opportunities are all in social media and that entrepreneurship is simply an inflection of novelty in this market. There may still be money to be made in this way and the experience may be valuable to the students, and that may be enough once one is out in the world trying to make a living. But while they are still in school, students ought to learn about deeper kinds of innovation and the courage and imagination that it requires.

    One way to do this is to study the ideas and stories of great innovators as part of math and science education, and not just as part of history. Why not try this before giving up on classroom instruction?

  • Stan Coerr

    This school is an outlier, a one-off from the real world. “Paly” is Palo Alto High School. It is literally across the street from Stanford.

    These kids mentioned undoubtedly have exceptionally wealthy and well-educated parents (who can afford to live in Palo Alto) and access to the best research university in the world.

    Their interest in entrepeneurship and tech is roughly as interesting as kids at a high school in rural Iowa being at the cutting edge of new farming techniques. It is due to their geography and curriculum and is neither bellwether nor good example.

    You are correct that thsi sort of thinking is valuable. This is, however, not the example to use. I would be more impressed if the Iowa corn farmers’ children were thinking about being entrepeneurs.

    Stan Coerr Mclean VA

  • Jim.

    School certainly shapes the mentality of kids, and even abstract character traits like determination can be encouraged (or discouraged) based on reward structure.

    Schools these day are infamous for doing screwy things like banning dodgeball and tag– pursuits where you can get banged around a bit, but you learn to pick yourself up and keep going (determination, anyone?) Giving partial credit, or credit for effort but not results, undermines focus on getting the job done right because that’s what customers expect.

    And finally, spending that many hours a day in the clutches of a bureaucratic, government-oriented mindset gives kids the absurd impression that government is above all and through all, preventing them from realizing how and why things actually get done in this world.

    Take Your Kids To Work days should be a far more integral part of kids’ education. While you can reshape the world with outside-the-box thinking, outside-of-reality thinking doesn’t work so well, and showing kids what reality is all about (working to make things happen) will help more than any bureaucratic effort.

  • thibaud

    “Schools these day are infamous for doing screwy things like banning dodgeball and tag– pursuits where you can get banged around a bit, but you learn to pick yourself up and keep going… ”

    Is Smear the [epithet removed] still OK?

  • The first thing you do is give them a brain transplant.

    Entrepreneurs are born not taught. We have to work with the material we have.

  • Jim.


    Apparently not.

  • John Burke

    I think this is both over the top in its criticism of US schools and way wide of the mark in suggesting that schools can teach entrepreneurship. There are a lot of things wrong with US public schools but most have to do with the failure to be demanding, fashionble curricula that waste time on nonsense, and dragging the whole business out too long.

    I’m with thibaud on this one. You can’t teach entrepreneurship.

  • jaybird

    I like what David Billington said. While studying entrepreneurship is better than not, understanding the practical problems and challenges of bringing something new to fruition is where the learning is. And a glance at these kids’ projects in this article shows that they are mostly easy expressions of the social media wave, not tangible proposals that might materially improve society, such as ideas for energy, transportation or medicine.

  • thibaud

    “not tangible proposals that might materially improve society, such as ideas for energy, transportation or medicine.”

    Agreed. Education’s role in helping to solve those problems should be focused on mastery of basic subjects as they relate to materials science, biochemistry etc, plus research opportunities for talented young people.

    Entrepreneurs will emerge independently of these two processes as the talented young people grow up and move into the workforce.

    But to use any of the scarce and very precious time that they have for formal schooling is to detract from the very difficult process of subject matter mastery, without which the entrepreneur is stuck doing the kind of timewaster apps and iPhone cover frou-frou that contributes nothing to solving the really big problems our society faces.

  • Jolie

    Entrepreneurship is a mind set and yes, that can be taught or at the very least influenced. Listen to all of your responses – negative and dismissive. Too many kids have no exposure to the possibilities of entrepreneurship. They are never told they CAN do this, therefore, never think about what could happen if they put their mind to it. Positive encouragement and a role model showing that yes, it can be done, could open up a whole world to youth that have had no exposure to the benefits and options entrepreneurship provides. These lessons are not only about the business side but also about learning to believe and trust in yourself, valuable learnings for people of any age.
    Some of the most important aspects from school are not learned but inspired. That’s what programs like these aim to do and I’m grateful to the people willing to devote their time and energy helping kids learn about all the options available to them.

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