Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on May 29, 2018
As the 17 teams of high school students from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia recently gathered at Drexel University, you could feel the excitement and energy in the air. They were about to compete in the Rising Starters competition hosted by the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship, pitching a new business idea to a panel of judges.
Each team won pitch competitions at their individual high schools to earn the right to compete in the championship event at Drexel.
Donna De Carolis, the founding dean of the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship, the first school of entrepreneurship in the U.S. that is independent of a business school and grants degrees, commented to the audience of students, their parents and teachers, “Introducing high school students to entrepreneurship education exposes them to an entrepreneurial mindset, a habit of mind that incorporates innovative thinking and doing in their life, career and profession.
“At the Close School of Entrepreneurship, all students will start something, learn how to fail and start again. They learn resilience and initiative – traits of all successful people. With this mindset, students are empowered to be the entrepreneur of their lives.”
De Carolis, a board member of Faith in the Future Foundation, the organization that operates these high schools for the Archdiocese, came up with the idea of an entrepreneurship competition as a way of introducing high school students to the traits and skills of an entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurship is not commonly studied in high school. When the Rising Starters competition was announced, there was a significant amount of interest expressed by students at each high school. The students received training in how to effectively present an idea to a potential investor who may fund the idea, or to a customer or client who may buy the product or service. They spent weeks practicing and refining their pitches to the judges of the Rising Starters competition.
They were taught to evaluate the market and competitors for their product or service, and to present the benefits of the product or service versus the alternatives. They also learned why it is critical that the benefits must outweigh its cost, and that there are non-financial considerations in the decision by a potential customer or client to purchase.
These high school students are learning how to sell their ideas and become aware of how important selling and presentation skills are in their professional success, regardless of their career path.
The successive rounds of competition at their high schools and the semi-final and final round competitions at Drexel reinforced these skills in the students. This builds their personal confidence that will carry over to nearly everything these high school students will be involved in throughout their lives.
I served, along with five other individuals, as a judge for the championship round of the competition. The six teams that presented varied from one to four individuals. All team members were poised, self-confident and mature in presenting the business ideas. Having attended numerous pitch competitions, I could not tell much difference between these high school competitors and college undergrads.
After the competition, I interviewed Hailey Gibson, a senior at Bishop Shanahan High School and one of the four members of the winning team. They pitched a novel design of a consumer product jar that increases the amount of product (in this case, peanut butter) that is extracted before the jar’s disposal, which could potentially save at least hundreds of millions of dollars in wasted food and lessen the impact of the discarded jar on the environment.
I asked Gibson what she learned from participating in the Rising Starters pitch competition. She said, “Don’t be afraid to present an idea, because no idea is a dumb idea. Working within a team – putting four heads together is better than one person working alone when developing a new product.” Gibson also said that how effectively one communicates is very important in getting others interested in an idea.
Students, remember that the mindset and skills of an entrepreneur are very valuable, whether you eventually start a company, work for a startup or work for a traditional company. It differentiates you from your peers, and helps you compete for that next job.
Even if you develop a product or service that is ultimately not successful, that experience and mindset makes you more attractive to future employers. You will have gained experience and demonstrated perseverance and resilience. This is the type of individual employers want to hire.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.