Jeff Sandefer: Inspiring Entrepreneurial Spirit in America’s Youth

November is National Entrepreneurship Month, a time when the nation celebrates the dreamers and doers who build businesses, create jobs and fuel the American economy. As we close out the month, Philanthropy Roundtable is revisiting a conversation between President and CEO Elise Westhoff and entrepreneur, teacher and philanthropist Jeff Sandefer during a recent episode of the Roundtable’s interview series “Doers to Donors: Innovators and Their Philanthropy.”

During the interview, Sandefer, founder of Sandefer Capital Partners and co-founder of a number of programs that benefit students in K-12 and higher education, discussed his path to entrepreneurship and a philanthropic venture inspired by his children that became “the single best thing” he and his family have done as entrepreneurs.

Jeff Sandefer has helped launch seven businesses throughout his career, including energy investment firm Sandefer Capital Partners and Sandefer Offshore, a successful oil and gas company. As a philanthropist and educator, he and his wife, Laura, co-founded Acton Academy, a global network of innovative K-12 schools that encourage students to be “curious, independent, lifelong learners.”

Of his various entrepreneurial pursuits, Sandefer told Westhoff “the single best thing” he’s ever done is launch a collection of one-day business fairs with his two sons, Charlie and Sam.

It all started when the boys approached him one day and said they no longer wanted to run a lemonade stand. Instead, they decided to host an event where young entrepreneurs could sell their products and services. Seven aspiring entrepreneurs, including Charlie and Sam, showed up with their businesses at the first fair.

It was such a modest beginning that Sandefer forgot about the event until the following year, when neighbors approached the family and asked them to do it again. The Sandefers decided to make the Acton Children’s Business Fair an annual tradition, and within a few years, the fair welcomed 200 young entrepreneurs and over 1,000 customers.

Inspired by the rapid growth of the event, the Sandefer family created a launch kit, so young entrepreneurs from around the world could start their own business fairs just as Charlie and Sam had done. Thus far, over 1,000 Acton Business Fairs have served 50,000 young entrepreneurs in 16 countries around the world.

The power of the business fair model, said Sandefer, is that the young people truly run the show.

“One of the few rules we have is no adults can teach anything,” Sandefer said. “The only way to destroy the entrepreneurial spirit in people is to have someone who doesn’t understand it try to teach it to you. [Entrepreneurship] is best learned in the trenches.”

Sandefer has long valued experiential “trench” learning. Acton Academy gives students the chance to participate in hands-on, real-world projects. Acton Business Fairs encourage young entrepreneurs to shake hands with adult customers, look them in the eye and sell products to them.

Sandefer’s latest program, Next Great Adventure, leads aspiring entrepreneurs between the ages of 17 and 24 through a series of experiential challenges over six weeks to “help you find your calling, accelerate your life and live a life of meaning.”

Overall, the program features 26 remote learning experiences requiring four to six hours of coursework per week, for six weeks. Aspiring entrepreneurs can participate in several free challenges before committing to the full program, which culminates in a forum that allows participants to pitch their ideas to “bring these next great adventures to life.” In return, they are provided mentors to help guide their journey and could receive up to $100,000 from Sandefer’s foundation to turn their ideas into reality.

To watch the full episode of “Doers to Donors” featuring Jeff Sandefer, click here, and listen to the podcast on Apple, Google and Spotify.

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