The Apprentice, Teen-Style

A small private middle school in Silicon Valley has a program to show teens how to start up their own companies.

May 28, 2004

4 Min Read
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While The Donald has gotten all the press about his show to pick a young entrepreneur, a small private middle school in the heart of Silicon Valley has been doing him better and far longer with a program to show teens how to start up their own companies. (And with no $250k salary at the end of the rainbow either!) Here is a report from one kid's father Rich Mironov, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Rich is currently VP of Marketing at AirMagnet, a wireless network management tools vendor. His site (www.mironov.com) includes a column about start-ups called Product Bytes.

Most founders of venture capital-backed start-ups tend toward technical degrees, MBAs and 40-something gray hair -- with a strong male bias. Here in the heart of Silicon Valley, though, there's a group of seventh-grade girls who are doing it all: writing business plans, raising venture capital, manufacturing products, and running their own profitable companies. Ten years from now, you may be working for one of them.

The Girls' Middle School (www.girlsms.org) has a required full-year course in entrepreneurship where all of the girls form companies, design products, and build defensible business plans. The highlight of the first half-year was a pitch night for actual Sand Hill VCs to get their start-up capital, complete with PowerPoint slides and an audience of 300. That started a frenzied six-month selling season for companies that made jewelry, snack foods, fleece clothing, and handbags sewn from recycled juice pouches.

[Full disclosure: While I'm related to one of these Young Turks, they still let me watch from the sidelines while they did competitive analysis, computed contribution margins, and sold to sometimes-indifferent buyers. My big challenge was to not help.]

WHAT DID YOU LEARN IN SCHOOL TODAY? Coming to the end of the year, I asked some of these proto-entrepreneurs what they've learned. See if these sound familiar.1. PICK YOUR FOUNDING TEAM CAREFULLY. Some of the girls were focused and aggressive; others were less organized or preoccupied. Keeping on their year-long schedule for business planning, design prototyping, market research and selling took emotional endurance. Each company picked an Operations VP to motivate and coordinate the other officers, with varying results. (Did I work for this start-up in the late 90's?)

2. DO SOME EARLY CUSTOMER RESEARCH. Some companies had to switch products early on, after finding that their first product lines didn't sell. Good experience, but the groups who squeezed in some test marketing got a faster start.

3. PICK SALES CHANNELS THAT REACH YOUR TARGET CUSTOMERS. Unsurprisingly, most of the 10 companies make products for teen/tween girls. ("Know your customer.") Finding sales venues was very challenging, however. Outside of school, where do you set up shop to reach teen girls? Malls discourage unlicensed vendors, and supermarkets trend toward adults. The local farmer's market had mixed results. Perhaps eBay?

4. MANAGING TO THE NUMBERS IS HARD. None of these young execs had experience projecting sales or cost-of-goods. Eight months later, they have a sharper sense of their ventures' inputs and outputs. Like all of the start-ups I've seen, teams had to scramble and re-plan as they reached the market.

5. LEAN ON EXPERIENCE. Each team had two adult coaches, meeting weekly on deliverables and progress. The coaches provided sage advice, particularly on intra-company dynamics. (That's a polite phrase for staying focused and working together.) Pencil in board of directors here.This week, the companies liquidated: inventories cleared, investors and employees paid, charitable donations made. Each team closed its project with a final meeting.

This was experiential learning. Not just an afternoon's discussion: groups had to live with their choices. Hard to build your product? Redesign it. Sales event didn't draw a crowd? Try somewhere else. Lost the cash box? Search like crazy, or you can't pay back your investors. A stark contrast with many of the one-session cases I read at Stanford. ("You are the CEO of a major manufacturer...")

For the fifth year, the program has been run by two women steeped in the Silicon Valley ethos: an engineer and an attorney who have each founded companies. They've provided not only a serious hands-on curriculum, but unmistakable role models. The subtext is clear: with or without boys, these girls are getting down to business.

Everyone's first start-up is about immersion and first-hand learning. You don't need a driver's license, or a beard, to dive in.

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