By Alice Kembel
Have you ever wondered how to keep your floors clean of mud tracked in by your children? How to prevent clogged toilets caused by too much toilet paper in the can? How to thwart meltdowns from exhausted children who refuse to walk another step?
Wonder no more. The 5th graders at Mackintosh Boulder have solved these problems and more in their most recent unit of inquiry on economics and entrepreneurship. Combining design thinking with basic economic principles such as supply and demand and competition, students developed products to serve the needs of Mack Boulder teachers, administrators, and staff after interviewing them about some of the problems they face. They then learned how to create business plans and market their products as though they were founders of a start-up company.
Fortunately for the 5th graders, they didn’t have to do it alone. In addition to support from their teachers, students discussed strategies around funding and pitching their ideas over Skype with Toby Krout and Erin Stadler, the CEO and Program Director at Boomtown. Mackintosh parents John Kembel and Michael Volk, who have both founded multiple start-up companies, spent time in the classrooms as mentors. Additional industry professionals who supported the fifth graders include Zach Nies, Vice President of Education at Techstars, Daniel Zacek, Founder and Chief Technology Officer of 9-1-1 Labs Inc., Allison Barto, Program Manager at Ball Aerospace, and Nawar Alsafar, Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Augur.
The unit culminated in a Demo Day in which students pitched their product ideas to a panel of industry professionals and school staff using their pitch decks and prototypes. In their presentations, students shared elements of their business plans, including the cost of supplies, manufacturing, and labor. Minimum wage in different areas of the country and abroad was also taken into consideration. They researched their competition, clarified what advantage their company had over their competitors, and communicated their retail price and projected profit margin. Upon concluding their pitches, students had to field questions from the panel of “venture capitalists” who were deciding whether or not to invest in their companies.
For example, the company created by 5th graders Aleena and Elle presented their product the “Up Dump,” a trash can with a top resembling a toilet seat and a pulley system for the lid to prevent trash from being blown around by the wind or scattered by animals. Their product is designed specifically for people who face these problems, as well as for “fans of tidiness.” After their presentation they faced questions and comments from the panel that were both encouraging and challenging. The girls were given feedback about the product itself: Had they considered the mechanics of the pulley system and how to prevent animals from getting tangled in it? Was the Up Dump designed to be compatible with garbage pickup by sanitation companies? Had they thought about a foot pedal to enhance the ease of raising the lid when one’s hands are full of trash? They were also asked if they were planning to move towards mass production in order to compete pricewise with companies such as Rubbermaid, who have a highly automated manufacturing process. Would they invest in automation and robotics or stick with human production? Finally, Aleena and Elle were given specific feedback on the mechanics of their presentation. They were complimented on their slides and encouraged to present based on those rather than reading from their scripts. And finally, they were reminded by Michael Volk, “Don’t forget to make eye contact with the investors.”
The whole process was an eye-opener for students who may have assumed a bake sale view of entrepreneurship prior to this unit: make a product, sell it, and make money. Take Ava’s company Booktastic Inventions, for example. Her product is a Blazing Book Bonanza Cart where students can easily return library books as well as share book recommendations with the school librarian. “It was hard but fun,” Ava said about the project. “Making a business plan and planning the pitch was a lot of work. I had to keep making changes along the way.” She went on to describe how her final product turned out completely different from her original design because the materials for the initial plan would have been too expensive. “I also had to change my product and company name,” she said. “I started with the Twinkie Cart and Cart Cake, but then realized they had nothing to do with the actual cart!” When asked what the most important thing she learned was, Ava replied, “You need to take risks – to risk starting over. You need to be willing to experiment with stuff, to re-do and add stuff over and over.”
Despite the stakes being much lower for these students compared to adult entrepreneurs, these are remarkable lessons to be learning at the ages of ten and eleven. “Despite living in one of the most vibrant entrepreneur settings in the country, there are no established pathways in our education systems for students’ ideas to be taken seriously,” says JJ Morrow, Mack Boulder’s Head of School. “This unit is one of many first steps we are taking to not only familiarize students with the process, but also legitimize their ideas by putting them in front of real industry players.”
5th grade teacher Brandy Ray adds, “Our hope is that they will understand entrepreneurship in a more in-depth manner and that it has given them an eye for considering how to scale a dream.”
So don’t be surprised if the next time you are passing through the Mackintosh Boulder campus’ lobby, you notice a roller shade with red, yellow, and green LED lights covering the window of the JJ’s office. It’s the “Anti-Interrupter,” designed by Ella, specifically for the head of school to signal to others whether or not he is available. Red means “busy,” yellow means “please knock first,” and green means “come on in.” After completing this entrepreneurship unit, Ella might just make her – and JJ’s – dream come true.