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 so, how do we teach in a school setting the key skills of launching and running companies and succeeding in business?
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 experiment in business skills-building was the setting — the open presentation space within CAST Tech, a project-based school founded in 2017 to address precisely my questions above.
Amir Samandi, mentor coordinator and partnerships director for CAST Tech, an in-district charter school in San Antonio Independent School District focused on business, tech and design, invited me to this Pitch-A-Kid competition.
I sat directly behind Timiera Jackson and MaryJo Armas, both age 15 and sophomores at CAST Tech. They and four others from their 10th-grade entrepreneurship class were 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.
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 are still striving for the right mix of customer experience, staffing, capital and a steady path to profitability. These founders don’t have it all figured out yet. But that’s OK. They are pitching to the high school kids to develop their own skills.
We heard pitches from:
Two marketing and lead-generation startups using artificial intelligence and chat-bots
An alternative finance company providing short-term loans through payroll
A primary-care, AI-driven, mobile app for diagnosing dementia early and cheaply
An improved-design, meditation cushion
A veteran-workforce concierge car service for service stations
An experiential-learning app for managers to design a customer-service experience.
Listening to some pitches, I understood the unique value proposition and potential path to profitability. For others, I just couldn’t see it. I was just happy none mentioned cannabis or blockchain, the buzziest buzzwords of the 2018 startup scene. Thank goodness for 2019.
Still, AI was the third-buzziest word last year.
The judges made their own evaluations and scored the pitches to determine the contest winner. Along the way, they hopefully absorbed the importance of public speaking, the organization of complex ideas while sticking to plain language and the startup problem of metaphorically flying the plane while simultaneously building it at 30,000 feet.
The questions and comments from the 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 developer. Great question.
“I don’t understand your business,” one of the sophomores said to the AI-driven lead-generation company. I had to agree with her.
Mike Millard, the founder of Pitch-A-Kid, kept the presenters’ pitches to five minutes, followed by another time-limited Q&A session afterward.
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 — she’d asked a lot of question about 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 potential investors. They get to learn which part of their story is the weakest, and which part resonates.
CAST Tech didn’t stage Pitch-A-Kid for the heck of it. Educators, Samandi said, have to shake up how they teach business and entrepreneurship.
“In my experience, I was in a classroom for six years,” he said. “The 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 said many of the Pitch-A-Kid judges had participated in Startup Week in October, 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.
“CAST Tech reimagines school from the bottom up,” Samandi said. “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 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-destroyers 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 we 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.
Michael Taylor is a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and author of “The Financial Rules For New College Graduates.”
Source: San Antonio Express-News By: Michael Taylor