Ask the Experts: Youth Entrepreneurship and the 21st Century Economy

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 teach young people the skills and mindsets they need to succeed as entrepreneurs in a 21st century economy. 

The Roundtable recently interviewed three leaders of nonprofit organizations involved in this work to seek their perspectives on the importance of youth entrepreneurship education and the challenges and opportunities on the horizon for aspiring entrepreneurs. They are Kylie Stupka, president of Empowered; Nicole Cassier-Mason, chief executive officer of Lemonade Day and Ayele Shakur, chief executive officer of BUILD.  

Roundtable: How does an education in youth entrepreneurship 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 challenge as an opportunity, not an obstacle. The development of essential skills like innovation, confidence and collaboration prepares students for their careers and lives. Experience-based, individualized, real-world relevant learning also helps graduates to create and seize opportunities. This type of education generally leads to happier, healthier people, who are more likely to positively contribute 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, in time, succeed in our modern marketplace. 

Nicole Cassier-Mason: Entrepreneurship is about much more than starting your own business. It’s a way to define yourself and make an impact on 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 work the plan.  

By running their own lemonade stand, students understand the importance of earning, saving and spending money wisely. These skills are proven to ensure a lifetime of freedom from financial burdens, enabling important life steps, such as access to college, employment, housing and health care. By planting the seed of innovation and building foundational skills, youth are prepared to transition to what comes next in life. 

Ayele Shakur: I truly believe our next generation of young people need entrepreneurship education to develop the skills necessary for success in a 21st-century economy. With the global workforce and economy rapidly changing, many of today’s jobs will not exist tomorrow and many of tomorrow’s jobs have yet to be invented.  

We need to create a generation of young people who are prepared to thrive in an uncertain world, equipped with the mindset and ability to adapt, pivot, invent and reinvent within a digital, socially responsible and equitable society.  

At BUILD, we teach our students the 21st-century “Spark Skills”: communication, collaboration, problem-solving, innovation, grit and self-management. Through the growth of their own businesses, our students demonstrate acquisition of and increased proficiency in these skills, and as they do, they grow in knowledge and self-confidence. Ultimately, entrepreneurship education helps young people become the CEOs of their own lives. 

Roundtable: Why do you believe traditional schools do not train students in youth entrepreneurship and how does your organization attempt to fill the gap? 

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

Empowered aims to fill that gap by reimagining an education system that better serves students and society, thanks to its community of great teachers. You can see the benefits in the 30%+ of students who start their own businesses through our education programs. And you can see it in the 95%+ of teachers who cite our organization’s support as a reason they remain in the classroom at a time when dissatisfaction and exodus are at an all-time high nationally.  

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

Lemonade Day plays a vital role in the education and workforce ecosystem. We help prepare youth for life by introducing them and their families to an entrepreneurship model that provides tools for socioemotional learning, financial literacy, mentorship and sound business acumen. We develop strategic partnerships with schools, after-school alliances, community and economic development organizations, religious institutions, businesses and more to improve access to youth entrepreneurship education. 

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 have become over reliant on standardized testing in order to prove growth and attainment of skills. However, life isn’t graded on a scale or a curve. Success in life is often determined by how you can overcome obstacles, demonstrate flexibility and exercise compassion.  

At BUILD, our program is designed to help young people, particularly those from under-resourced communities, start real businesses in the ninth grade based on their passions and interests. Students learn and develop skills outside of what they traditionally learn in the classroom. Examples of success include students like Mehrin, a BUILD participant in New York City, who overcame adversity when her team was able to pivot, adapt and pitch their business successfully despite last-minute challenges they faced with their product. 

Roundtable: What are the challenges and opportunities on the horizon for youth entrepreneurship? 

Kylie Stupka: One major challenge is ensuring change-making teachers have support and freedom in their careers and classrooms. Our future needs passionate teachers to “fix” our schools and reverse the trend of underprepared graduates. Teachers choose the profession wanting to build a brighter tomorrow, yet 40% quit within five years out of frustration. 

Teachers are also our best opportunity. Educators, second only to parents, have the opportunity to influence the paths and outcomes of young people. 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 collaborate to re-imagine schools from the bottom up.  

Nicole Cassier-Mason: On the opportunity front, we must meet our children where they are and find creative, relatable ways to inspire them into action. Youth receive information differently today – on social media and YouTube. These are dynamic sources of information that shape their minds, perspectives, experiences and beliefs. By contrast, traditional school learning has been 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 borrow from the entertainment industry to make learning more entertaining.  

Also, concepts around financial literacy and career development historically aren’t introduced until high school or college, assuming a youth is college bound. Studies prove such concepts must be introduced in early childhood to be lasting. This is especially true in underserved communities, and is an opportunity that should be undertaken.  

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

Students today often don’t see the relevance in what they’re learning, and we’re at a critical moment in our nation’s history to make education relevant. With the spotlight on post-pandemic recovery and growing racial and social inequities, it’s time we equip young people with the skills they need to lead as a generation of entrepreneurial changemakers. 

For a deeper discussion on the subject of youth entrepreneurship, watch the Roundtable’s webinar Youth Entrepreneurship: Effective Community Based Programs featuring Kylie Stupka, Nicole Cassier-Mason and Ayele Shakur. 

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