Education for Entrepreneurship

testing

testingI wonder about the following question: are entrepreneurship and traditional education totally at odds? Can practical business skills only be learned on the job? Or can we teach this at school? And if at a school, how do we teach the key skills of launching, running and succeeding in business in a school setting?

In early March, I attended my first Pitch-A-Kid competition, which struck me as a highly plausible learning tool for school age students to gain insight into startups.

Equally important to this plausible experiment in business skills-building was the setting, the open presentation space within CAST Tech, a project-based learning school founded in 2017 to address precisely my questions above.

Amir Samandi, Mentor Coordinator and Partnerships Director for CAST Tech, the in-district charter school in San Antonio ISD focused on business, tech, and design, invited me to this Pitch-A-Kid competition.

pitch-a-kidI sat directly behind Timiera Jackson and MaryJo Armas, aged 15 and sophomores at CAST Tech. They, along with four others from their tenth grade class in Entrepreneurship, formed the judges for Pitch-A-Kid.

Pitch-A-Kid takes the traditional venture capital model – young startup founders pitching to older capitalists – and flips it on its head.

Instead, seven startup founders – adult entrepreneurs in their first few years of business – compete to win over the high-school age judges. Like most startups, these seven businesses still seek the right mix of concise pitch, customer experience, staffing, and of course capital and a steady path to profitability. These startup founders don’t have it all figured out yet. But that’s ok. They are pitching to the high school kids – the judges in the contest – to develop their own skills.

We heard pitches from:

Some pitches I understood the unique value proposition and potential path to profitability. Some pitches I just couldn’t see it. I was just happy none mentioned Cannabis or the Blockchain, the buzziest buzzwords of the 2018 startup scene. Thank goodness for 2019. I guess AI is still the third buzziest word.

The high school sophomore judges made their own evaluations and scored the pitches themselves, to determine the contest winner. Ideally, as well, they absorbed the importance of public speaking, organizing complex ideas while sticking to plain language, and the startup problem of metaphorically flying the plane while simultaneously building it at 30,000 feet.

Cast_TechThe questions and comments from high school judges echoed my own thoughts.

“Have you considered outsourcing, to bring costs down?” one judge asked the meditation-cushion manufacturer.

“What are your profits?” another judge asked the customer-service app founder. Great question.

“I don’t understand your business,” I heard one of the sophomores query the AI-driven lead-generation company. I had to agree with her.

Mike Millard, the founder of Pitch-A-Kid, kept the presenters to their strictly enforced 5-minute pitch, followed by another time-limited Q&A session afterwards.

Perhaps true to his mission and style, Millard’s chief timekeeper for the event was his primary-school age daughter Audrey, who he credits with inspiring the idea for Pitch-A-Kid through her own inquisitiveness around one of Millard’s own startup plans.

The benefits flow in both directions from Pitch-A-Kid. Startup founders get a chance to hone their pitch for a critical audience. They get to learn, directly through questions from teens, which part of their story is the weakest, and which part resonates.

CAST Tech

The fact CAST Tech brought in Pitch-A-Kid is no accident. Samandi described the challenge traditional schools face in teaching business and entrepreneurship. His mission, and that of his entire school, directly addresses that.

Says Samandi: “In my experience, I was in a classroom for 6 years.

testingThe public school environment can be a bit bureaucratic. For example, if a kid wants to sell a candy bar, that breaks the rules. That stifles creativity and entrepreneurship. It makes it hard in that environment for entrepreneurial thinking to thrive. The environment really promotes conformity.”

Samandi mentioned that many of the sophomores in the Entrepreneurship class judging at Pitch-A-Kid had participated in Startup Week in October, themselves pitching adults in the local tech scene. But as Samandi says, much of CAST Tech’s approach by necessity is to “flip the script” on traditional learning, to foster entrepreneurship.

Samandi told me: “CAST Tech reimagines school from the bottom up. We are asking – how do we make school an entrepreneurial environment? If we’re going to make business, tech, and design the focus, you’re really going to have to open up.”

It’s a cliché – that probably has some truth to it – that the traditional school process discourages entrepreneurship. Breaking the rules? Thinking outside the standardized test? Trying something that very likely will fail the first few times? Specifically disregarding received wisdom and undermining the old way? These are all keys to succeeding in entrepreneurship and fast-moving businesses, but these behaviors are total transcript-crushers in a traditional educational setting.

On the other hand, traditional schooling rewards skills that would be career-destroying in many businesses: Stay in neat rows, stick to your own lane. Remain silent. Work alone for long periods of time, quietly producing long-form texts based on classic ideas from 20, 50, or 150 years ago. What are doing – training kids for a monastic life?

You won’t learn the “move fast and break things” mantra of Silicon Valley in a traditional school.

A project-based learning school like CAST Tech trying to “flip the script” strikes me as a difficult and worthwhile, project.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle.

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Elements of a Tech/Startup City

closer_to_fineHere’s my thesis, which won’t make me popular in some parts: My city’s no tech startup hub. Not even close. So the question is: What’s the missing thing that would make a city a tech hub?

I asked a bunch of experts. Do you remember that Indigo Girls song “Closer to Fine?” I was an Indigo Girl last month, asking everybody my question. Maybe I can put that earworm inside your brain for the rest of the day. “I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains…” You’re welcome.

I collected six answers from as many experts, which I’ll summarize and let them expand upon: Proximity, Practice, Leadership, Unique Advantages, Real Problems, and Patience.

Those were the answers, and clearly are some of the ingredients. Combining them to make a tech city probably takes a dash of luck and a bit of magic as well.

The UT San Antonio Dean of Engineering Dr. JoAnne Browning proudly showed me the architectural plans for her department’s key ingredient to building a tech startup city: Proximity. Outside of her office window, trucks moved earth in preparation for constructing a 17,000 square foot “Maker’s Space,” intended to bring together under one roof engineers, entrepreneurs and industry experts – a tech lab to launch the next generation of startups, and startup founders.

Meanwhile, on another part of the university campus, Diego Capeletti, Coordinator at the Center for Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship (CITE) runs an annual startup competition to give undergraduates startup practice even before leaving university. Twenty teams typically enter the annual CITE competition, teams made up of both engineers and business students, paired with industry mentors. They are winnowed down to 10 teams that receive funds for building prototypes, and then a final group of 5 teams make a pitch to a Tech Symposium. Winners receive a $5,000 cash prize plus generous in-kind services such as legal, public relations, office space, and patent help. The big idea here is that a startup city needs to produce young people with practice in startups.

I asked Michael Girdley, who wears many hats as the founder of a software coding school CodeUp, co-founder of investment firm Geekdom Fund and startup incubator Real Co about the city’s key missing ingredient. He added the third element beyond the UTSA’s folks’ proximity and practice.

When I pushed for the tech startup city’s most important single missing piece, Girdley settled not on training undergraduates but rather on the dearth of business leadership.

“There are not enough startup founders. We need the experienced professionals, in particular, who can start companies and swing for the fences.“

cyber_securityCongressman Will Hurd (R – 23rd District) brought an intelligence agency and cybersecurity professional background to serving the district which stretches from northwest San Antonio all the way nearly to El Paso. When I asked about San Antonio’s key missing ingredient, he immediately pointed to one of the city’s natural, unique strengths – cyber security.

“It requires us to understand why San Antonio is Cyber Security City USA. Very simply, the 24th [LINK: http://www.24af.af.mil/] and 25th [LINK: http://www.25af.af.mil/] Air Force in SA, TX. This is what’s driving the talent,”

he commented, naming the two cyber warfare groups stationed at Lackland Air Force Base. The first key to building a tech startup city would be building on that unique strength, to retain people leaving those jobs who want to remain in the city, but also to build private companies to serve the Air Force groups’ needs.

And that, according to Hurd, requires the second ingredient: the need to solve specific, real problems.

“To create an ecosystem…you‘ve got to have problems to solve, and you’ve got to have people that can solve them.“

If the Air Force cyber units can identify and make specific problems available to the private sector through something called the Cyber Proving Grounds [LINK: http://www.24af.af.mil/CPG/] Hurd argues,

“then we get everybody like all these smart private sector entrepreneurs in a room, and tell them ‘Here’s our problem, give us a 30-day, 60-day, 90-day solution.’”

The big idea here is that local startups shouldn’t focus on solving Silicon Valley problems, but rather San Antonio-specific problems, as posed by the city’s unique cyber security strength.

I called Dr. Ben Jones, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago, who independently echoed Congressman Hurd’s key messages, and amplified them. It sounded to me like they’d been reading the same books on startups.

“We think in innovation that it’s easier to work back from real problems. By being close to a real problem you can pivot and innovate toward real solutions.

You might have a company that has a real problem they are trying to improve on, and you need to bring those problems to people who can work on that.

Why do clusters of innovation happen? Because it’s a thick market on both sides. There’s a large variety of needs and a large group that can meet those needs.”

 

Jones’ theory echoed Hurd’s focus on San Antonio’s unique advantage – cyber security – and the identification of real problems that need solving, as the basis for startups and innovation.

For one more element, I turned to one of the original three Rackspace founders, Dirk Elmendorf, for his unique perspective as an entrepreneur who helped build the city’s only recognizably large tech company.

His pitch for the one missing piece for everyone eager for a tech and startup city: patience.

“The real challenge of being a tech city is that unlike technology itself, cities don’t change overnight. So the challenge is sustaining the ambition, to be willing to stick it out even if you’re not sure the plant is going to grow.”

He also urged a two-track approach to encourage patience.

“Our idea is to continue to build small things that may survive, because small achievable things sustain excitement, but also aim for large ambitious things that make a bigger impact.”

So proximity, practice, leadership, unique skills, real problems, and finally, patience.

There’s more than one answer to these questions, pointing us in a crooked line.

 

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

 

Please see related posts:

 

Getting started – Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurs – Pack twice the luggage, half the money

Entrepreneurship and its Discontents

 

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