Jumpstart Schools and Businesses

February 15, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about new business models and about education and training. Often these have been separate veins of thought but yesterday they merged in my thinking to the following: what if schools started business incubators? My thought is that it wouldn’t be mandatory, but also shouldn’t be exclusive to either those schools with more funding and/or older students (high school or college/grad school).

We know the stories of Mark Zuckerberg, or Bill Gates many years earlier, launching successful businesses from their Harvard dorm rooms but why not broaden the notion of who, how, when, and what type and size business gets started. A first grader probably can’t write a business plan on their own, but with some coaching in how to brainstorm ideas could probably generate some interesting thoughts based on their still developing “why/why not” view of the world. Jeff Jarvis in “What Would Google Do?” (copyright 2009, Collins Business, p. 193) writes of investors needing to reach out to the dorm rooms of MIT and Stanford and even some high schools to essentially provide business incubator seed money. Excellent idea, but why not broaden this concept beyond the top tier schools and include kids younger than high school as well?

It’s easy to think of the many recent examples of young, 20-something, entrepreneurs starting multi-million and even multi-billion dollar businesses. But, why not think of many business start-up opportunities that could be profitable on a much smaller scale and also give a young person some great learning experiences? Seth Godin recently blogged about 999 business start-up ideas that he and 8 others quickly pulled together: http://tiny.cc/72y6W and while some of these are larger scale projects and ideas, many are pretty simple and wouldn’t take much capital to start. Nor would it take a rocket scientist to come up with many more similar simple start-up business ideas.

Conceptually all schools could have a business incubator, even if it was a small room off the library, where kids could meet periodically with a teacher, business professional/volunteer, or other mentor to talk about ideas and work on business plans. Many ideas might not get much further than the idea stage, but the best ones could get funded and launched with real life “intern” type opportunities realized by many kids who would otherwise never experience such relevant life/work experiences until much later.

The reality is that many schools may not feel that they could break out of their current structure to do experimentation on this level. Fine, they don’t need to – back to my earlier point about “not mandatory”. That said, I could see some who would welcome the opportunity to set up mini-entrepreneurship academies just as there are now language immersion schools, technology schools, math/science academies, etc. Likewise, not unlike the way businesses grow or fail, a school could start small (portion of library with some resources and an after school voluntary “club” and mentor) and expand if the concepts and ideas took off. The process also wouldn’t have to assume that the end goal is necessarily about launching a new business – it could involve things as simple as just generating business ideas and the research (and yes learning) that goes into figuring out whether an idea or concept has any market viability. It could involve reviewing business ideas and/or partial plans generated by others; working part-time at a start-up; or a host of other activities related to starting businesses.

What about schools that have limited funding and/or are undercapitalized already? Why not allow schools that are interested in this concept to use some of the education monies from the economic stimulus package to support even the launch of small incubator within their current school if they want? If it were to be federally funded, based on need, then that initial investment should be small at an individual institution level with the ability to grow through private funding based on a schools ability to write business plans justifying such growth.

In a best case scenario, kids would not only learn more by doing (e.g. “word problems” put into action) but enough successful micro-business launches could scale to a partial economic stimulus of its own. If you don’t like the idea, don’t do it. If you’re not sure, watch others try it and if they succeed and some of these concepts take off then use “best practices” notions to leverage these successes to the followers of these early adopters. If you like the idea, then I’d love to collaborate on how we get this concept going.