Camps and classes incubate kid entrepreneurs
There's no archery or canoeing at these summer camps. Children have the chance to learn how to start their own businesses long before they enter high school.
By Charlie Wells, The Wall Street Journal
Jensen Bergman spent weeks preparing to pitch his team's business idea to investors. Minutes before the meeting, he was playing ping-pong outside the board room to stay calm.
Jensen is 9 years old.
"If they say no, it's going to be really upsetting for us," he said as one of his teammates wheeled up beside him on a tiny scooter.
Jensen was taking part in a program called "8 and Up" that teaches young children about entrepreneurship. As a culmination of the class, which met for six weeks in Princeton, N.J., and cost $350, Jensen and his 15 peers would soon pitch their idea — "Tiger KidsClub," a Friday night hangout space for children — to real, grown-up investors at Tigerlabs, a local seed fund.
As startups like WhatsApp and Oculus VR Inc. get snapped up for billions of dollars and others, like Twitter (TWTR) and Facebook (FB), go public for more, younger children are filling classes, camps and other programs that promise to develop entrepreneurial skills in the pre-pubescent set.
Some scholars argue that cultivating entrepreneurship in the very young is vital, as children are born imaginative, energetic and willing to take risks, but lose this entrepreneurial spirit over time. Advocates say such programs make up for gaps left by an educational system that ill prepares students for a tech-centric, rapidly shifting job market.
"It's best to teach them at age 5," says Cristal Glangchai, founder of VentureLab in San Antonio, which offers a weeklong course for 5- to 7-year-old girls called Girl Startup 101. It costs $255 for five six-hour days of instruction, including lessons on 3-D prototyping, market research, business modeling and pricing.
In a similar course last summer, Glangchai says she helped a 5-year-old identify a problem: getting into trouble for eating Play-Doh. The solution: After polling students and parents, he created a marketing plan for a line of edible clay-like products in various flavors.
Frederick Mendler's daughter, Isabel, age 6, has attended Girl Startup twice, last summer and in March. Mendler, who co-founded a recruitment-technology startup called TrueAbility, says he was skeptical of a class aimed at such a young audience. But he says he hoped the class would help her be "independent," something she wasn't getting from "all the princess books and the Barbies."
He has been pleased with the result. One recent evening, Isabel — a big fan of the Disney (DIS) film "The Princess and the Frog," which is set in Louisiana — proposed opening a business to sell New Orleans-style beignets.
James Schrager, who has been teaching entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business since 1981, says interest in venture capital rises and falls along with the stock market. Today's camps and classes, he says, can be seen as modern attempts to replicate the old ways families taught children about business, most notably by bringing them to the workplace.
"Shark Tank," an ABC reality-television program in which contestants pitch to a group of investors, recently ran an episode featuring entrepreneurs under 18. Kevin O'Leary, a venture capitalist and founder of Softkey Software, as well as an investment fund company called O'Leary Funds, says he was once chased down at an airport by a hopeful 9-year-old contestant.
Kiowa Kavovit, who was 6 years old in the March 14 episode, pitched Boo Boo Goo, a waterproof, liquid bandage available in many colors. On the show, Kiowa and her father were granted an offer, contingent upon a patent being granted to the product, of $100,000 from O'Leary, who also asked for a 25 percent stake in the company.
Most entrepreneurship classes for children follow this basic format: Students are presented with a problem, tasked with finding a solution, and often put in groups to pitch and, eventually, execute the idea.
Children's business ideas can be unexpectedly adult. In an entrepreneurship class at Long Island University's Brooklyn campus called "Lemonade Stand 101," a group of children under 12 faced the problem of differentiating juice stands in a crowded market. Some suggested offering fancy sweeteners adults would enjoy, like agave, said instructor Michael Murphy, who has worked for the advertising agency Young & Rubicam.
In March, Karl Ulrich, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, stopped by his sons' school to help teach middle-schoolers a three-day entrepreneurship course focused on a problem facing a local business. Little Baby's Ice Cream wanted to offer a wedding-cake option, but making big, meltable cakes last through a wedding was proving something of a challenge.
One child solution: Why not pipe liquid nitrogen around the cake to cool it? Pete Angevine, who helped found Little Baby's Ice Cream, says he liked that idea so much that the company plans to test it by experimenting with liquid nitrogen at NextFab, a Philadelphia maker space.
Entrepreneurship classes have their skeptics. Ulrich's wife, Nancy Bentley, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, says she is fine having her sons learn entrepreneurial approaches to problems. But she is wary of the "hero-worship" of entrepreneurs — the "fuzzy thinking that there's some kind of magic dust and if you have it, it's going to mean wealth and growth and all kinds of good things," she says.
Schrager, from the University of Chicago, notes that some programs assume all children have a predilection to be entrepreneurs. "You can't teach the gestalt," he says.
The "8 and Up" pitch included a persuasive essay, a rap, a look at the children's Lego model of the space, and even a showing of "grit," by 9-year-old Jensen and a friend, who did as many sit-ups as possible in one minute. Grit is one of the six entrepreneurial themes taught in the class. The group asked the board, composed of four Tigerlabs associates, for permission to host KidsClub at Tigerlabs' offices, and offered the board a cut of an expected $750 in revenue from their first event, to be held in May.
The 9- and 10-year-olds listened intently as the board offered tempered praise, constructive feedback, and, after a pause, $100, with several conditions attached, to fund KidsClub. Bert Navarrete, who co-founded Tigerlabs and sat on the board, said he liked the KidsClub idea. But, he said, he and the board were unsure of its feasibility. To that end, he explained the board would offer an initial $100, but would only offer space for the business if the children could promise enough sponsorship and clientele to make the project work.
The children cheered. In the lobby afterward, Jensen said his nerves had settled. "The only reason my stomach might hurt now is because I'm starving," he said, as his parents stood nearby, waiting to drive him home.
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