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These Philly high schoolers are developing social enterprises for credit

Instructor Scott Aronow lends some advice to a group of teen entrepreneurs at Friends Select. December 21, 2015 Category: FeaturedMethod
Colleen Puckett couldn’t help but notice how some of her high school students at Center City’s Friends Select School were getting together after school to come up with new ideas for small businesses.

Oftentimes, those businesses had an inherent social component. That inclination toward social entrepreneurship is deeply embedded in Quaker education, said Puckett, the assistant head of school for external relations at Friends Select — it’s a system that’s empirical by nature and emphasizes the concept of “betterment” by design.

So, when Puckett and her crew got a call from Schoolyard Ventures‘ (formerly StartupCorps) founder Rich Sedmak, they were quick to bring the teen small business accelerator into their after-school programming arena. It didn’t hurt that three Friends students had recently gone through Schoolyard Ventures’ programming.

“The kids themselves are independently asking for this kind of entrepreneurial experience,” Puckett said. “It’s this really great combination of real-world business experience and having an impact on an issue in the world.”

But the program is being done a little differently at Friends. Both Sedmak and his instructor, Scott Aronow, are helping the students accelerate socially conscious businesses. Puckett said students from the “earliest ages” at Friends are involved in thinking about how to tackle serious social problems.

Schoolyard Ventures is helping them actually do it.

In the first week of the 13-week program, students identified a range of social issues they find most concerning: social isolation among the elderly, affordable tutoring for young students, access to affordable engineering competitions and litter were among their top concerns.

What they care about most, Sedmak said, is jobs.

“We’ve had so many students that have wanted to work on ways they can connect their peers to jobs when they’re young,” Sedmak said. “Not just an internship photoshopping for a large company — something that aligns with their purpose.”

Schoolyard Ventures makes sure the students in their programming drive the business development process themselves. Aronow said the responsibility is on them to make decisions about what kinds of ventures they want to work on. It leads to a more “real-life experience” for them, he said, as opposed to just being told what to do.

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What Schoolyard Ventures provides is threefold: mentorship, community and funding.

Yes, funding.

“We provide whatever funding they need to get something going,” said Aronow, adding that sometimes all students need is $20. “A lot of times, a little bit of funding can go a long way.”

Aronow and Sedmak make sure the students in the program are doing real-world testing — and that doesn’t always mean simply sending out surveys. For a group of students researching solutions to social isolation among Philadelphia’s elderly population, it meant heading to a nearby nursing home to interview staff and residents.

In their fourth session, the initial four groups of students continue to break out into small sects — some solo — to pursue actionable ideas: Three students are working on a program to teach feminism to pre-teens, two are in the midst of collecting data that will structure a tutoring business, two are starting a local robotics competition, another two are plotting a consignment company for limited-issue sneakers and three are discussing methods of redistributing unused coupons.

But that could all change in week five. It’s all part of the process. Just ask DetraPel founder David Zamarin, who developed his shoe-protection spray in a Schoolyard Ventures program just two years ago. At first, his company was a shoe-cleaning business.

“He realized instead of cleaning shoes he could move slightly up the value chain,” said Sedmak, adding that Schoolyard gives students the chance to test lean businesses and fail early on. “They build their confidence and their sense of personal agency.”

There’s another twist with the Friends Select iteration of Schoolyard Ventures programming: a partnership with Wharton Social Impact Initiative. During the secod half of the program (now entering week six), the students will work with WSII on a consulting project, analyzing a local social enterprise.

More real-world experience.

“Entrepreneurship is nothing more than problem solving, working your way through the obstacles, being flexible and maneuverable enough to solve a problem,” Puckett said. “This is our urban classroom. With this social enterprise component, students will be able to go forth and make positive change on the world.”

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