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June 25 2015

Young Entrepreneurs Keeping HOPE Alive

When I started work with Operation HOPE, I set my sights on discovering the ins and outs of youth entrepreneurship. I was moved to discover if the myth was true: that creating a business (and the competition to land a $500 HOPE grant) could actually motivate and engage students deeper into their overall learning. In my application essay, I wrote something so characteristically “Steph” in its idealism:

“I firmly believe that social enterprises and entrepreneurship education are poised to play a key role in transforming our schools and communities; they are untapped opportunities to fuse education and workforce, to provide real-world relevant technical and transferrable skills training. These opportunities allow youth to learn by doing--all while making money for their families, serving our community, and developing skills for the new economy.”

Typically, after the new-job-orientation dust settles and we engage in work, however, the reality trickle kicks in: our expectations flow in a downhill trajectory from idealism/excitement/hope to realism to disillusionment and disengagement. This can happen pretty quickly in nonprofits and education. After joining the HOPE team, I suppose somewhere in my subconscious I wondered if even my formidable idealism could really withstand the inevitable downhill roll.

So, it felt like a crap-shoot, preparing to HOPE Business in a Box Academies at High Tech Early College (HTEC) in northeast Denver last week. It was a school with which I was unfamiliar, the program was going to be crunched into 3 days (2 hours each day including the pitch competition), two youth were signed up and, get this: it was an optional program that began the first day of summer vacation. Yeah, me neither; my high school self would not physically be able to walk into a classroom when it had been so desperately craving unscheduled weekday blocks of sun for the last 10 months.

By the time Monday rolled around, Maria, the HTEC Computer Tech Pathway teacher, had managed to recruit a group of five students. In her very teacher-y show of advocacy and showmanship, she emailed, “Our outstanding and innovative students are looking forward to meeting you and your team.”

I’ve only been a few months at HOPE. Perhaps the dust is still settling. Or, dare I suggest, perhaps there’s something special happening here. Whatever the reason, last week at HTEC felt like a super-win for idealism and (excuse the pun that won’t ever get old) a super reinforcement of hope (HOPE…).

Sahil, Jasmine, Lenlee, Eddy and Stephany blew my mind. By 1pm on Wednesday they pitched some of the most well-thought-out and polished presentations I have seen.

Sahil was already part of a group of young entrepreneurs who started a business designing and selling school-pride apparel that students actually liked. I was sure he’d use that company as a basis for the HOPE academy. But, he decided to use the opportunity to launch another business on his own. He created (not ideated, actually created) an app to aid in classroom discussions and debates. His plan: market to teachers who would convince Principals to purchase a year subscription for the entire school for $99. His visual presentation was sleek and I even saw a bit of charisma sneak out from under his shy, techie exterior during the pitch.

Lenlee decided to join the academy to support the long-time dream of her best friend, Jasmine, to start a bakery. Their idea was driven by a passion and friendship that made me pause. It was like witnessing a scene from your favorite show when two characters have been developed slow-cooked over several seasons, and then the writers open up and let you share an intimate, innocent moment in their friendship. In the midst of a society where high-school students battle bullying, practice lockdowns on the regular, and are consumed by a suffocating addiction to technology and individuality, Lenlee and Jasmine reminded me that what we see on the news is never really reality—not even close to the nuanced full picture. Their pitch was a reflection of this deep youthful friendship: they finished each other’s sentences when one forgot where she was headed. Lenlee divided profit share 20/80, claiming this is Jasmine’s dream, so she deserves most of the profit. And the lemon bars they baked for the judges: sweet and sticky (just like their friendship that stuck with me).

Winners Eddie and Stephany are a couple. Eddie begged Stephany to join the HOPE Business In A Box Academy even though she had a busy schedule working at Target. He had been making money at school selling and repairing phones and wanted to turn it into a real business. At first, I was sure they were a typical high school couple: not focused on learning. I thought this because most of the first hour they were focused on each others’ eyes rather than my fancy PowerPoint slide. Then they both had to leave halfway through the first session. But, with the HOPE structure and work they put in outside class time these two became a power couple with a stellar Smart Phone Repair company, Steady Repairs (that’s Stephany and Eddie combined). Their target market: high school students. Their argument: repairs from Steady were cheaper and more convenient than purchasing insurance and paying a deductible when, inevitably, as a high school student, your phone will somehow get crunched. These two move onto the Business Role Model phase to further develop the business and launch plan. Wish they were around when I shattered my phone last year.

I can’t really put my finger on why this 3-day academy worked so well. It inspired our whole HOPE team. Was it just a convergence of several positive factors hard to replicate in the future? Motivated students, optional program, $500 grant at stake, a school and teacher who have provided an engaging education and real-world opportunities in the past, fantastic HOPE facilitators and curriculum, small learning community, time outside the school year to focus?

I’m not sure what happened in these three special days or if it can be replicated, but I’m so inspired I’m putting all my money down because I do know two things:

First, entrepreneurship is a powerful engagement and empowerment tool. It is a special blend of creativity and practicality; It gives youth a structure for turning an idea into reality through creative and critical thinking. It allows them the opportunity to know that they can accomplish big things in life.

Second, hope for our youth, hope for our economy, hope for connection in a disconnected world is alive and warrants our faith in it.

Thank you Sahil, Lenlee, Jasmine, Eddy and Stephany and your teacher, Maria, for keeping me on the top of the hill and reinforcing my sickening idealism.