When Steve Jobs was 12, he looked up Bill Hewlett, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, in the phone book, called him up, and asked if he had any spare parts for the frequency counter he was building in school. Hewlett helped Jobs out with the frequency counter, and then ended up offering him a job on the HP assembly line that summer.
You know the rest of the story.
The benefits of teaching kids entrepreneurship skills have been written about widely. Letting kids build their own businesses gives them hands-on experience solving tough challenges. But working with role models who are entrepreneurs themselves, like Jobs did with Hewlett, can be an amazing bonus that nurtures kids’ entrepreneurial spirit and allows them to envision what’s truly possible.
The Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh’s Startup Something project aims to expose kids to local role models who have become their own bosses. The program brings kids on visits to local technology startups like iTwixie, Thread International, and Idea Foundry.
Startup Something recently matched students with Pittsburgh video game creators from Digital Dream Labs, creators of the cloudBoard video game, for a workshop about game design. Teens were challenged to think like designers as they reimagined the classic board game checkers. First, they pinpointed what they didn’t like about the game. Then, working with their mentors, they incorporated new elements like dice and playing cards, testing each new idea as they went along. At the end, the Digital Dream Labs team explained how their cloudBoard video game was transformed from an idea into a retail product.
To help close the still shocking gap between the number of women and men in STEM careers, CanTEEN offers an interactive game that guides girls through an array of STEM careers with challenges and questions, including some about science greats like Marie Curie and Sally Ride. CanTEEN also sponsors Girls Engaged in Math and Science, or GEMS, which are afterschool workshops that feature local female role models in STEM careers.
Sejal Hathi, a young entrepreneur and medical student who heads up both GirlTank and S2 Capital, shares her thoughts about the importance of young female entrepreneurs connecting with mentors in a piece in the Huffington Post. Her own mentors, she writes, supported her ambitions and helped her find the resources to build her websites. Without these role models, she says, too many young entrepreneurs get lost in the process.
Workshops and afterschool programs are a critical first step for fostering future entrepreneurs, but internships and apprenticeships are also invaluable. The STEAMM Academy (the extra “M” stands for medicine) at Highlands High School is a school-within-a-school that lets kids take part in internship and shadowing opportunities at local partner businesses in the manufacturing, health care, and design sectors. They can also earn up to 23 credits toward a college degree.
Apprenticeships like these can even turn into jobs, which helps both young people graduating in a tough economy and manufacturing employers who are searching high and low for enough qualified people, according to a recent New York Times story.
Beyond helping kids envision their future, programs like these can help cities and regions build their own economic futures. Cities such as Pittsburgh, which suffered population loss during the long years of economic retrenchment, are anxious to keep talented young people at home to build the next economic resurgence. Increasing the capacity on the ground to engage children early is an important first step to stemming brain drain and building a vibrant local economy because increasingly, that economy will be built on the entrepreneurial spirit.