Demand for youth entrepreneurship programs is skyrocketing.
At The Spike Lab, this is music to our ears. Not only does it mean we’re staying busy, it also means that more young people are looking for opportunities to do meaningful work and learn real skills.
I’m not just talking about people starting businesses in high school. In fact, I believe that entrepreneurial ventures extend beyond business to include any project that is innovative, has a purpose, and makes an impact. At The Spike Lab we call these projects Spikes, and we believe that they can be transformational.
In this article, I’ll describe the unique benefits of learning entrepreneurship in high school, highlight the beliefs that set The Spike Lab apart, and shout out a few other notable programs.
In America, the mythology of the entrepreneur is woven into our cultural fabric. It’s the entrepreneur who pursues the American Dream. Characters in our stories follow the same Horatio Alger-inspired belief in improving one’s lot through entrepreneurship. Somewhere around half of the Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants, and it’s not uncommon to hear people refer to America itself as a startup, complete with its own set of founders and mission statement.
Of course, there is some nuance to both the reality of the American Dream and the cultural standing of the entrepreneur. But these days, especially with young people, it seems that entrepreneurship is in vogue. There are a few reasons why.
Entrepreneurship skills have real-world value and bestow serious rewards.
Entrepreneurship requires a mix of creativity, communication, planning, and initiative. For years, experts in many industries have stressed the importance of these skills. However, most schools have failed to adapt their curriculums to teach them. Meanwhile, students read stories of unicorn tech companies and creative individuals raking in massive sums of money. While the “point” of some academic content isn’t always clear, the practical skills one learns through a business venture, a creative project, or any Spike have obvious value.
Colleges love when students show their work.
Launching a Spike is a great way for students to stand out to colleges. The days of being well-rounded are over. Projects like building a business, which require students to solve problems creatively, give them a visible, differentiated portfolio of real work. It shows schools that they’re willing to go deep in a subject. Starting a business, even if it fails, is a great indicator of commitment, grit, and maturity.
Being an entrepreneur is cool.
In a time when many heroes are losing their aura (or at least becoming humanized), it’s still heroic to tackle complex problems. Look no further than figures like Greta Thunberg and Elon Musk for larger-than-life examples. Whether through entrepreneurship, activism, or scientific research, solving hard problems is cool. This is a good sign because the world needs more people who are willing to solve hard problems.
A changing landscape.
There’s been an explosive emergence of new online tools for communicating, as well as creating and sharing work. It’s easier than ever for teenagers to see examples of their peers who have built successful businesses. Likewise, it’s easier than ever to build a business using just your smartphone. The next generation is leading the charge into a new digital economy.
But as an entrepreneurial student, it can be hard to know where to start. This is where youth entrepreneurship programs enter as a great way to add structure to an ambitious project. I’ll shout out a few specific programs in a bit. But first, I want to mention a few practices that set The Spike Lab apart from the pack.
The Spike Lab View of Youth Entrepreneurship
With all due respect to all other programs, I think of The Spike Lab as the Navy SEALS of youth entrepreneurship. Our team has spent countless hours over the past five years designing a truly rigorous experience. We don’t just help students design business plans, we help them build something of impact over a sustained period of time. We turn young people into innovators for life.
I believe that any program can do the same using these four insights.
To a large extent, the quality of coaching determines the quality of a youth entrepreneurship program. It’s no surprise that the best coaches are those who have first-hand experience building successful businesses themselves. But many programs face a problem: the best coaches have a high price tag and are too expensive to hire for more than a guest appearance.
At The Spike Lab, we’ve made coaching our core competency. Coaches who want to work with us go through a rigorous 5-round interview process that is more selective than Harvard. After that, new coaches receive 3 months of training to learn about our coaching curriculum. As a result, students can expect to work with people who have serious backgrounds in building and operating businesses. Crucially, our coaches always work with students directly, one-on-one, over long periods.
A few other highlights about our coaches. They…
- Hold undergraduate and graduate degrees from top universities like Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Michigan, and Princeton
- Have extensive backgrounds as technologists, product experts, artists, and marketing specialists
- Have worked at leading organizations like McKinsey, Northrop Grumman, and Palantir
Go beyond demo day
In many programs, students cap off their experience with a business pitch. While pitching is a great exercise, the real fun starts after the pitch. The gritty side of entrepreneurship, the side that builds and tests real skills, happens when entrepreneurs have to find product-market fit and scale their creations. This can take years of hard work. We would do students a disservice by shortchanging them on the glory and frustration of that journey.
The caveat here is that going beyond demo day is really hard. A Spike is a long-term endeavor, and we want to set students up for success. Supporting them through this period takes a village. In addition to our coaches, The Spike Lab supports students with a team of specialists that helps them tackle challenges like networking and marketing. Read more about the superheroes that provide this specialized support here.
Be relentlessly student-centered
Paul Graham, who runs one of the best start-up accelerators in the country, has written about the importance of finding a project of one’s own. This is a project that deeply engages a person and brings out their best work, a project you can fall in love with. In Graham’s view, learning how to find and pursue these projects as a kid is a prerequisite to doing great work later in life.
In tune with Graham’s thoughts, we want each student’s Spike to align with the work they love to do. But we go a step further. In our program, students go through a process of self-discovery in which they also build self-awareness and a sense of purpose. A great Spike, like a great business or work of art, should flow outward from who the student is, what they care about, and what impact they want to make. When we get this right, students tend to fall in love with what they’re working on.
Integrate college admissions and entrepreneurship
Students who do exceptional work in high school but fail to tell the story properly miss out on tremendous opportunities.
More important to us than product-market fit is something we call Spike-Story fit. A Candidacy Story or “Story” is a concise summary of how a student wants to be remembered by colleges. A good Story should dovetail perfectly with the work done in a Spike as well as a student’s purpose and personality.
Integrating college admissions well goes back to being student-centered. Youth entrepreneurship programs are in a unique position to coach on college admissions. If our team can help a student build a successful business that is meaningful to them, then we can also help them tell their story in the college application process. Our students come out more confident and self-assured as a result. We don’t think it’s a coincidence that 100% of our students were admitted to a reach college in 2020 and 92% over the last half-decade.
What else to look for in a youth entrepreneurship program
For a long time, learning entrepreneurship meant learning business principles like management and accounting. The International Baccalaureate (IB) Business Management course is an example of a course that – though rigorous – represents the old school. This model is no longer the norm. The new school of learning entrepreneurship means learning using 21st-century methods and tools.
Many of the top programs do some variation on a simple model – students go through a project-based curriculum in which they create real businesses and then present their ideas in a demo day or pitch competition. Depending on the occasion and the student, these programs can be incredibly effective.
While youth entrepreneurship programs come in all shapes and sizes, the best ones share some common traits in that their students…
- Practice identifying problems and testing solutions
- Apply proven ideation frameworks like design thinking and Lean thinking
- Do some prototyping of their product or service
- Perform marketing research
- Network with industry experts
- Gather feedback on their ideas from potential customers
- Are allowed to fail
Naturally, programs that have these traits don’t fit neatly into most traditional school systems. That’s why you’ll find that many of the best high school entrepreneurship programs are extracurricular or summer programs. Exceptions to this rule include the New England Innovation Academy (NEIA) and Alpha in Texas. Both of these schools bring entrepreneurship, innovation, and life skills to the heart of their curriculum.
Other Youth Entrepreneurship Programs
Here are a few other youth entrepreneurship programs doing great work at the moment.
LaunchX is a summer program that attracts highly motivated students to build businesses in small teams. Teams do research, design solutions, and launch their ideas by the end of the summer. LaunchX prides itself on the quality of its speakers and course instructors. However, because it’s a summer program, there isn’t much opportunity for students to go beyond demo day.
This program offers business and leadership classes that allow students to earn college credit. Their multi-week courses focus on specific skills like marketing, management, and scaling. WIT also offers two other noteworthy course options: a week-long boot camp that culminates in a $1,000 pitch competition and a 1:1 coaching accelerator program for more tailored support. Overall, WIT offers a good mix of options for students who want to target specific skills or learn in quick bursts.
DECA has been around since 1946 and offers a series of business challenges for high schoolers throughout the calendar year. Some challenges let students compete and work on real problems for real businesses. In this sense, DECA gives students hands-on experience in business but doesn’t emphasize original ideas.
This non-profit offers courses for all grade levels K-12. Courses focus on entrepreneurship, financial literacy, and work readiness, and include titles like Creative Problem Solving and Rapid Business Planning. The Entrepreneurship course teaches 21st-century skills but doesn’t seem to allow students to follow through on their business idea.
This isn’t a youth entrepreneurship program per se, but we like their emphasis on letting high schoolers “seize and drive their learning.” Autonomy and empowerment are fundamental aspects of a good Spike (and any meaningful learning experience, for that matter). GripTape does have a 10-week Entrepreneur’s Challenge; however, it is currently only available to students who live in rural Colorado.
Our world is evolving in rapid, thrilling, and sometimes intimidating ways. No industry is exempt from change. Colleges and employers are looking for young people who can solve problems creatively and make an impact. Young people and their parents should be asking themselves how they can cultivate skills for lifelong learning, not only to stay afloat in an innovative economy but also to continue growing their sense of purpose.
Even if you’re a student who’s not planning on being an entrepreneur as an adult, the skills you learn by doing a Spike will serve you in tacademia, the arts, business, and government. Ambitious students, including those who have done any of the programs I mentioned above, should sign up with us to take their work to the next level.