More than business ownership: the broad benefits of entrepreneurship programs

Entrepreneurship programs develop skills that benefit young people wherever their paths take them.

Youth programs emphasizing entrepreneurship have grown in popularity over recent years. Some programs in the Pittsburgh region focus entirely on entrepreneurship, while others incorporate aspects of entrepreneurial skills into broader curricula.

All programs, however, must contend with the fact that most participants will go on to careers working in established companies and organizations. In light of that fact, how do decision makers ensure that their offerings are valuable and meaningful to all participants, not only those who will go on to found their own enterprises? How else do these programs provide value to the young people who participate?

We spoke to program administrators from across the region to explore the benefits of learning about and practicing entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs in the Workplace

Startable Pittsburgh is a free eight-week summer program that teaches entrepreneurship and maker skills to youth ages 16 to 18. Students gain experience developing, designing, and prototyping products of their own creation, ranging from screen printed t-shirts to jewelry and even professionally produced music.

But participants learn more than just design and production techniques, becoming well versed in branding and marketing strategies. The program culminates in an annual marketplace (where students keep all the proceeds from selling their wares) and product competition with a grand prize of a $1,000 investment.

Startable students prototyping their products with an instructor / photo: Ben Filio

Startable students prototyping their products with an instructor / photo: Ben Filio

That experience can yield benefits far beyond the boost it gives a young person’s business, said Staci Offutt, Startable Pittsburgh’s Program Associate.

“We don’t invest in ideas so much as the people who have them,” she said. “We’re constantly looking for young people we can grow into individuals and help build skill sets around the things they want to pursue.”

A key feature of what Startable offers, Offutt said, is exposure to the full range of skills young entrepreneurs will need. Participants often enter the program convinced they will excel at design, for example, only to find that they are surprisingly good at—and interested in—an entirely different skill set, like accounting or marketing. The program ensures participants aren’t one-dimensional—a trait that will serve them well whether they work for themselves or someone else.

“Whether you’re starting your own business or entering an established business, the learning curve is hard,” Offutt said. “Being able to exercise all the pieces, from sales to coding, and just getting a taste for those things is really helpful to seeing the bigger picture of how systems work together in the business world.”

Building Networks

For Sean Gray, Pittsburgh Area Director of All Star Code, a nonprofit that gives young minority men an introduction to the worlds of entrepreneurship and computer science, the benefits of thinking like an entrepreneur are many. While the six-week program emphasizes coding and the language of computer science, there’s also a strong focus on professional development and the “soft skills” needed to begin and maintain successful professional careers. Students learn how to write resumes and build LinkedIn profiles, for example, and spend time during the program participating in mock job interviews.

Site visits to companies like Google and BNY Mellon’s Innovation Center also open students’ minds to the opportunities that exist in their field. And perhaps just as important as the coding, exposure, or other soft skills students gain, said Gray, are the ability to network and access to ASC’s extensive network.

“They know that they have a support network that includes people who are leading tech companies who really do appreciate them and want them to succeed,” said Gray. “Anybody who is part of the All Star Code experience becomes part of their network, and that grows week by week.”

Michelle Thomas, Director of Programs for the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern PA (TMP), agrees about the importance of networks and building relationships. TMP supports a wide range of mentoring programs throughout the region, promoting the importance of quality mentoring through training and professional development programming.

The mentor-mentee relationships furnished by organizations like All Star Code and Startable Pittsburgh provide students with invaluable support and the opportunity for tailored guidance and feedback. But the very experience of forming these mentoring relationships, Thomas said, can go a long way toward preparing young people to find others with whom they can network and learn from over the course of their careers.

“These experiences teach them how to advocate for themselves and look within their networks and make connections,” Thomas said. “Regardless of whether it’s entrepreneurship-focused or not, relationships matter. Mentoring is based on the importance of relationships and using those to help young people leverage opportunities. And that comes from being able to express a genuine care with young people, being able to recognize their skills.”

The Uncertain Future of Work

The future of work is increasingly complex and ambiguous, said Jason Swanson, Director of Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks, a nonprofit organization that collaborates with educators and other decision makers to create policy briefs and develop solutions to prepare students for the future of learning and work.

“By the time these students become adults, entrepreneurship could look completely different,” he said.

The idea of a “side hustle” has already taken root in today’s working culture. What if the work landscape continues to atomize, breaking further into gigs and smaller, task-oriented work? Skills such as networking, marketing, and understanding the bigger picture will become even more valuable.

And self-confidence, durability, resilience, goal-setting, critical thinking, and problem solving will be valuable even if the student never becomes an entrepreneur.

“There’s a strong argument that those are the skills and traits that we would want everybody to embody, not just a good worker,” said Swanson. “Those are the skills that create a more resilient, healthy young person that can navigate an uncertain future, not just at work but in a society in flux.”

Not Just for the Future

Indeed, the skills Swanson listed may be of significant value to students long before they enter the workforce. Self-confidence, resilience, critical thinking, and problem solving are highly valued traits and skills among educators.

Entrepreneurship also teaches innovative and divergent thinking, said Swanson. “It builds the self-confidence to find answers and advocate for yourself,” he said. “These are the building blocks of becoming a lifelong learner. These are skills that can benefit someone through the duration of their life.”

Jennifer Baron, director of marketing and outreach for Handmade Arcade, an annual craft fair that in 2017 attracted more than 10,000 visitors, also sees the broader value of the skills that entrepreneurship programs can teach.

Handmade Arcade / Photo by Joey Kennedy

Handmade Arcade / Photo by Joey Kennedy

Through Handmade Arcade’s Youth Scholarship Program, which began in 2017 with a partnership inviting Startable Pittsburgh alumni to sell their wares at the event, Handmade Arcade provides workshops geared toward helping young people market and present their goods. Participants’ $250 table fees are waived and they are also connected with veteran Handmade Arcade vendors who can answer questions and give tailored guidance. The program returns this year, giving 12 youth entrepreneurs an invaluable platform in “Youth Maker Alley,” a featured section of the December 8 event.

While many Youth Scholarship Program participants have aims of running their own businesses or one day working as fine artists, Baron stresses the less tangible values of honing one’s craft and connecting with a broader community, such as the DIY craft movement of which Handmade Arcade is a part.

“Creativity takes so many forms,” she said. “You could go on to become a nurse but you do your craft as art therapy. There’s a lot of emphasis on entrepreneurship as a business and not always enough on creativity as an outlet.”

Published November 27, 2018

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