Youth Entrepreneurship and the 21st Century Economy

The Philanthropy Roundtable works with donors who want to build strong communities by introducing them to organizations that help people access economic opportunity. This includes programs that give young people the skills and mindset they need to thrive as entrepreneurs in a 21st-century economy.

The Roundtable recently interviewed three leaders from non-profit organizations involved in this work to get their perspective on the importance of educating young entrepreneurs and the challenges and opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs. You are Kylie Stupka, President of Empowered; Nicole Cassier-Mason, Executive Director of Lemonade Day and Ayele Shakur, Executive Director of BUILD.

Round table: How does a youth entrepreneurship education lead to success in the 21st century economy for those who receive it and for society at large?

Kylie Stupka: Like any career path, starting a business may not “work” for everyone – but the components of an entrepreneurial mindset are universally applicable.

An entrepreneurial or growth mindset helps young people see challenges as opportunities, not obstacles. Developing fundamental skills such as innovation, confidence and collaboration prepares students for their careers and lives. Experience-based, individualized, and true-to-life learning also helps graduates create and seize opportunities. This type of education generally results in happier, healthier people who are more likely to make positive contributions to society.

Our organization, Empowered, works with K-12 teachers who guide students through learning experiences that help them discover their unique passions and skills so they can, over time, thrive in our modern marketplace.

Nicole Cassier Mason: Entrepreneurship is much more than starting your own business. It’s a way to define yourself and make an impact in the world.

Our vision is for all children to be introduced to entrepreneurship through the real-world experience of starting their own business: a lemonade stand. Through our licensed program, children learn how to set a goal, make a plan, and carry out the plan.

By running their own lemonade stand, students understand the importance of making, saving, and spending money wisely. These skills have been proven to ensure freedom from financial burdens throughout life and enable important life steps such as access to college, employment, housing and health care. By planting the seeds of innovation and building essential skills, youth are prepared to transition to what comes next in life.

Ayele Shakur: I firmly believe that our next generation of young people need an entrepreneurial education to develop the skills needed to thrive in a 21st century economy. As the global workforce and economy change rapidly, many of today’s jobs will no longer exist tomorrow and many of tomorrow’s jobs have yet to be invented.

We must create a generation of young people ready to thrive in an uncertain world, equipped with the mindset and ability to adapt, twist, invent and reinvent within a digital, socially responsible and just society.

At BUILD, we teach our students the 21st Century Spark Skills: Communication, Collaboration, Problem Solving, Innovation, Determination and Self-Management. Through the growth of their own business, our students demonstrate acquisition and increased mastery of these skills, and as they do so their knowledge and confidence grows. Ultimately, entrepreneurship education helps young people become the CEOs of their own lives.

Round table: Why do you think traditional schools don’t train students in youth entrepreneurship and how is your organization trying to fill the gap?

Kylie Stupka: Our traditional national model for K-12 education is outdated and broken. Teachers and schools are not judged on the long-term value they create in preparing students for life; They are judged on standardized test scores and enforced rankings. There is no incentive to really prepare students for life in the current system.

Empowered aims to fill this gap by reinventing an education system that better serves students and society thanks to its community of great teachers. You can see the benefits in the over 30% of students who start their own businesses through our educational programs. And you can see it in the over 95% of teachers who cite support of our organization as the reason they stay in the classroom at a time when discontent and attrition are peaking nationwide.

Nicole Cassier Mason: Traditional school learning does not fit the new world in which we move. Youth entrepreneurship is not a textbook activity that may not be applicable in real life. It’s about things like negotiating terms, finding investments, studying geography, dealing with difficult clients, and using your creative and technical skills—all while dreaming and innovating.

Lemonade Day plays an important role in the education and work ecosystem. We help young people prepare for life by introducing them and their families to an entrepreneurial model that provides tools for socio-emotional learning, financial education, mentoring and solid business acumen. We develop strategic partnerships with schools, after-school alliances, community and economic development organizations, faith-based institutions, businesses and more to increase access to entrepreneurship education for young people.

Ayele Shakur: Unfortunately, our outdated 19th-century education system was designed to teach students to find the “right answer,” to fear failure, and to limit creative thinking. Schools are increasingly relying on standardized tests to demonstrate skill growth and acquisition. However, life is not measured on a scale or a curve. Success in life is often determined by how you overcome obstacles, show flexibility, and practice compassion.

Our program at BUILD is designed to help young people, especially those from underfunded communities, start real businesses in ninth grade based on their passions and interests. Students learn and develop skills outside of what they traditionally learn in the classroom. Examples of achievements include students like Mehrin, a BUILD participant in New York City, who overcame adversity when her team was able to successfully pan, adapt, and deploy their business despite short-term challenges they faced with their product .

Round table: What are the challenges and opportunities looming on the horizon for young entrepreneurship?

Kylie Stupka: A major challenge is ensuring that teachers who make change have support and freedom in their careers and teaching. Our future needs passionate teachers who will “fix” our schools and reverse the trend of underprepared graduates. Teachers choose the profession that wants to build a better future, but 40% quit within five years out of frustration.

Teachers are also our best chance. After parents, educators have the opportunity to influence young people’s paths and outcomes. Many of the frustrations they experience stem from a lack of resources, support, and trust. Empowered aims to provide relief in the form of tools and encouragement as they work together to reinvent schools from the ground up.

Nicole Cassier Mason: On the opportunity front, we need to meet our children where they are and find creative, relatable ways to inspire them to take action. Young people today get their information differently – on social media and YouTube. These are dynamic sources of information that shape their thoughts, perspectives, experiences, and beliefs. In contrast, traditional school learning was all about sitting down and listening to the teacher.

Lemonade Day is committed to making youth entrepreneurship fun, engaging and experiential. Through our new digital platform, we’re borrowing from the entertainment industry to make learning more fun.

Also, historically, concepts related to financial literacy and career development are not introduced until high school or college, assuming a youth is college-bound. Studies show that such concepts must be introduced in early childhood to be sustainable. This is especially true in underserved communities and is an opportunity that should be seized.

Ayele Shakur: I think the biggest challenge facing our industry is the lack of recognition that entrepreneurship education should be taught as a core course in every high school across America. Leaders in our education system need to realize that the skills students acquire through entrepreneurship are just as important as what they learn in geometry or algebra.

Students today often fail to see the relevance of what they are learning, and we are at a critical juncture in our nation’s history to make education relevant. As we look towards the post-pandemic recovery and growing racial and social inequalities, it is time to equip young people with the skills they need to lead as a generation of entrepreneurial changemakers.

For an in-depth discussion on youth entrepreneurship, watch the Roundtable webinar Youth Entrepreneurship: Effective Community-Based Programs with Kylie Stupka, Nicole Cassier Mason and Ayele Shakur.

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