An implantable device to minimize stuttering. An app-operated hydroponic garden. Interchangeable cleats designed for use in more than one sport. I think even Mr. Wonderful would have been impressed by these business ideas—I know I was, when called upon to judge “Shark Tank” competitions this spring at Hopkins and Spring Lake Park high schools. That’s right: High school students came up with these proposals; and not just the big ideas. They also designed prototypes and calculated manufacturing costs and projected earnings.
As the teens made their pitches, I couldn’t help but think that at their age, I was just trying to get my babysitting pay nudged up to $5 an hour.
Of course, entrepreneurial competitions weren’t prime-time television back then. My high school didn’t offer a class on entrepreneurship and innovation. Nor did we get time in school to job shadow professionals. High schools have become so much more proactive, not only teaching practical business concepts but exposing students to the work world and encouraging them to learn about jobs that might match their interests. The research on Generation Z finds that today’s high schoolers are focused at an earlier age on making practical career decisions. I know I’ve had high school interns who are every bit as promising, responsible, and nearly as polished as college interns.
“What I worry about as an educator is making sure we don’t perpetuate the opportunity gap.”
—Melissa Olson, Spring Lake Park High School’s career and college pathways coordinator
But if I really stop to think about it, the high school students who have spent a semester commuting downtown a couple of times a week to observe magazine work were able to use their parents’ cars and pay the $20-plus for parking.
Not all school districts are created equal, which might sound obvious, but I’m not sure we spend enough time thinking about all of the ways that affects students—including small but significant details like not having appropriate office clothes to wear to an internship—and how we, as professionals, can help.
“There’s an osmosis that happens in an affluent community, where parents’ experiences in the business world are naturally passed along to the kids. They have an edge going into a Shark Tank-type experience,” says Melissa Olson, Spring Lake Park High School coordinator of learning for career and college pathways. Olson was recruited from Minnetonka Public Schools’ VANTAGE advanced professional studies program, which, from my own interactions, is best described as the Harvard of high school career programs. VANTAGE students might do market research for General Mills or consult with executives from Polaris. The program has become a model for high schools throughout Minnesota and beyond. Olson is trying to build something similar at Spring Lake Park, but she’s realizing it’s not as simple as just putting in the effort.
“Spring Lake Park has some affluent families, but it also has many families new to the U.S., and a higher population [than Minnetonka] of free- and reduced-lunch students [a common measure of family income],” Olson says. “What I’ve learned is, you have to be more intentional about the career skills needed to be successful in business.”
That means not just helping kids put together their Shark Tank pitch, but making sure they understand the concept. “Our students don’t have the same level of exposure to entrepreneurship that I saw in Minnetonka,” Olson says. “They will rise to the occasion. They’re really hungry for understanding.”
I saw that firsthand while judging Spring Lake Park’s first-ever Shark Tank competition. The winning idea was a coffee house aimed at LGBTQ college students. The students who pitched it had priced off-campus real estate. They designed a menu of colorful drinks to represent various populations. At Hopkins High, the winning pitch was a pocket attachment for three-ring binders. The creator of Carry All Caddy had already set up an Etsy shop and sold 25 units with plans to step up production this summer.
The Hopkins prize for winning: $1,000. The Spring Lake Park winners received Caribou Coffee gift cards.
A key measure of success for the professional programs at high schools is involvement from the business community. “It’s easier to do when you have a huge number of professionals in your community,” Olson says. “What I worry about as an educator is making sure we don’t perpetuate the opportunity gap. Our job is to level the playing field.”
There are so many ways to get involved: Be a guest instructor. Open your workplace for guided tours (and perhaps offer to cover transportation costs). Volunteer to be an expert resource who students can call upon. Says Hopkins business instructor Jesse Theirl, “When a student is getting the insider’s perspective on something, they really soak up a lot.”
You never know—you could be helping a future star of your company.