May 7, 2019
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What we gain when we teach entrepreneurship in high school

Aside from learning real-world business tactics, these students at an Illinois high school are creating a positive difference in their communities.

Students in Oregon High School's Social Entrepreneurship Program learn how to turn an idea into a business that will also benefit the community. Photo courtesy of Aaron Sitze

“Entrepreneurship” is a trendy term, and it’s easy to see why—entrepreneurs disrupt old models with creativity and innovation. They cultivate imagination, become their own bosses, and get to show up to their spacious, glass-filled offices in jeans and hooded sweatshirts. Today, even public schools are jumping on board, shelling out for expensive curriculum like C.E.O or IncubatorEDU to teach “entrepreneurship mindset.”

Yet these programs—and even our general fascinations with #entrepreneurlife—are missing the point. As Heerad Sabeti, CEO of the Fourth Sector Group puts it, “the critical problems the world is facing are not going to be solved unless we make a rapid transition from a suicide economy to a sensible one that prioritizes people and planet.”

The “sensible economy” Sabeti is speaking about is the focus of the growing field of social entrepreneurship.

What makes “social entrepreneurship” different? Like all business, it comes down to the bottom line. Entrepreneurs focus on a single bottom line: profit. Social entrepreneurs, on the other hand, focus on a double- or triple-bottom line: profit, social impact, and environmental sustainability.

That’s exactly what our high school students in the Social Entrepreneurship Program in Oregon, Illinois, are challenged to become each year. The Oregon High School Social Entrepreneurship Program expects that students design, launch, and operate a “for-benefit” social enterprise over the course of one school year.

How does it work? Rather than just asking, “What can you do that makes money?”, the essential question for our students becomes, “How can you make a positive difference—and create income—by doing something you’re passionate about?” Students develop these ideas into a “business model canvas” and create a minimum viable product. Then, they pitch their proposals to community members at a public showcase in hopes of securing the investment capital needed to launch their businesses.

Rather than just asking, “What can you do that makes money?”, the essential question for our students becomes, “How can you make a positive difference—and create income—by doing something you’re passionate about?”

In second semester, we invite community leaders to give hands-on lessons in branding, website design, marketing, banking, and accounting. Students apply these to their social enterprise prototypes, culminating in a Launch Day “Shark Tank” evaluation by local business leaders. There is no substitute for experience, and so, in the fourth quarter, students operate their startup micro-business following “Lean Startup” methods: create a hypothesis about your business, create a short experiment to test it, measure the results, and then adapt your business practice.

Since the creation of the program, we’ve seen 29 student-run businesses enter the marketplace, each designed to make a difference in the world, with a wonderful range of diverse interests and causes.

Here are just a few of the different projects up and running:

  • “All Sides News Report”: a weekly lesson plans for Civics teachers that exposes bias in the media and seeks to build critical thinking skills in students.
  • “The Fairdale Firewood Company”: when an F-4 tornado destroyed their small town, clogging trails with fallen trees, these two students chopped up the debris and sold it as firewood.
  • “Vital Media & Marketing”: a social media marketing service that focuses on helping small, local businesses compete in a larger market.
  • “The Lotus Company”: an apparel line designed specifically to promote awareness of domestic violence, with part of the proceeds supporting the local women’s shelter.
  • “Limitless Small Engine Repair”: these two mechanically-minded student fix and sell broken-down machines, saving literally tons of waste from entering landfills.

As the program creator and instructor, I often get asked how “successful” the students are—but to answer that, it’s more important to explore what success is not. It is not how much money the student makes. It is not whether the student’s business scales up or fails into extinction. It is not even the grade the student gets in any one assessment, or in the course itself. Instead, the program is a well-timed microcosm of life, a chance for students to enter “the real world”—a place often cited by educators but rarely allowed to be visited.

In the program, as in life, my students experience ups and downs, excitement and frustration, anxiety and relief, successes and failures on all scales. Yet, all of these experiences take place within the supportive environment of school—a safety net that does not exist in the real world.

The success of the Oregon High School Social Entrepreneurship program comes from the spontaneous way that it adapts to each student’s experience, how it challenges students to face and cross thresholds, how it facilitates responses to conflicts, or how it slows down and pauses moments to help students see the inner-workings of relationships and team dynamics. But even more than that, its success comes from giving the next generation of social entrepreneurs the confidence and experience to make powerful change using market-based solutions.

If you’re interested in bringing Social Entrepreneurship to your district, please contact me: asitze@ocusd.net.

Aaron Sitze

Oregon High School

Aaron Sitze is a National Board Certified teacher and a 2013 Illinois State Teacher of the Year Finalist. He is the creator and current instructor of the Social Entrepreneurship Program at Oregon High School, in Oregon, Illinois, which recently won 1st and 2nd Place at Northern Illinois University’s Social Impact Summit pitch competition. Visit www.socent.ocusd.net for more information or email asitze@ocusd.net.