Youth Entrepreneurs Test Their Inner 'Sharks'

Oct 17, 2018

Scores of teen wannabe Elon Musks and Sheryl Sandbergs from across the region convened at Blue Ridge Community College early this month to take part in a two-day Youth Entrepreneurship Workshop.  WMRA’s Jessie Knadler was there to capture the teen spirit and learn how to think more like an entrepreneur.

Are you a hustler? A hacker? Or an artist?

That’s the question 150 young people had to answer at the beginning of the two-day Startup Experience. Based on their answers, the kids were sorted into groups comprised of the three types—goths paired with athletes. Kids in camouflage mixed with those wearing suits and ties. Each hodge-podge team had to identify a bunch of problems and turn one into an opportunity for a new startup company.

HENRIK SCHEEL: If you’re looking at the problem of the lack of good math education for high school teens, right? That’s our problem.

The project was facilitated by this energetic Danish guy named Henrik Scheel. He lives in Silicon Valley and conducts these workshops all over the world.

SCHEEL: I sort of started out eight years ago with this idea that we need to have more young entrepreneurs solve real big problems around the world.

Many of the problems the kids came up with were huge: world poverty, hunger, global warming. Some were disgustingly common like what is up with all the pee on toilet seats?

Fifteen year old Malakai Johnson from Harrisonburg took the lead in his group.

MALAKAI JOHNSON: I think important problems we can come up with would be truck blind spots, student back problems, procrastination.

It was a grab bag of issues. Local entrepreneurs such as Peter Denbigh were on hand to encourage the teens. Denbigh is co-founder of the co-working space Staunton Innovation Hub.

PETER DENBIGH: They’re not jaded yet. They’re like, Oh yeah, I can solve world hunger, no problem. That’s awesome. The challenge is helping them to focus so it’s attainable but not biasing them too much—‘no, you can’t do that.’ That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve.

Once students identified a problem, they then had to figure out how to go about solving it. Here’s Henrick Scheel again.

SCHEEL: We then form business models around those ideas. And then we send them out of the building to talk to customers, do market research, and figure out whether this idea is actually viable.  

REPORTER: In two days?

SCHEEL: In two days. Then finally how to pitch their idea. So we’ll have sort of a Shark Tank style panel for tomorrow afternoon.

Kathy Deacon is the executive director of the Staunton Creative Community Fund. It helps small businesses get going. She’s the one who brought in Scheel to conduct the workshop.

KATHY DEACON: Statistically when students graduate in four years with a degree and an idea of what they want to do for a job, that job is probably going to no longer exist because of the exponential change that’s happening in our society right now. 

She points to the coming automation and artificial intelligence revolution. It’s expected to render many --- some have even said millions of jobs -- obsolete. She says students can’t train simply to be workers anymore. They have to be idea generators and problem solvers. 

Kids in the workshop came from twelve different high schools in five different districts around Rockingham and Augusta Counties. Anyone who wanted to participate was welcome.

DEACON: Entrepreneurs come in all shapes, sizes and colors and flavors. Don’t have to be an A student and in fact, what research has shown is that A students are typically the ones who …. the traditional path fits them better.

Deacon’s goal is to make such startup initiatives commonplace in the Valley.

SIVAHN LEWIS: The reason why I took this program is because I myself want to become an entrepreneur because I’m also working on my fashion brand.

Seventeen year old Sivahn Lewis from Staunton was part of the workshop. He had on a pair of jeans he painted himself. He plans he make a living selling clothes, art and music. You know, an entrepreneur.

LEWIS: This course has taught me not to really judge the first impression of the people you’re surrounded with. I didn’t think I was going to really like this group of people but they’re pretty cool, open minded, diverse—they’re pretty unique individuals.

This up-and-coming fashion designer and his eclectic team decided to pitch an idea about correcting blind spots on semi trucks on the highway.