At a recent sales event in downtown Washington, young people in suits maneuvered to catch the attention of likely customers. “Did you know there’s an epidemic going on? An epidemic of lost keys!” said one teenager, guiding his listener toward a display of wristband key chains. Hat designers handed out business cards, and cake bakers explained that, yes, they would deliver. You’d never guess that the confident 11th-grade entrepreneurs had once been considered likely high school dropouts.
BUILD, a four-year program, uses small-business creation to reengage at-risk high school students in their education. Participants don’t just write a business plan; they make and market products, learning professional skills and emotional maturity along the way. Last year, every student who stayed with BUILD from ninth through 12th grade went on to college. Almost all alumni that pursue postsecondary education stay on track to earning their diplomas.
The nonprofit works with school districts to recruit entering ninth-graders who meet certain criteria for socioeconomic disadvantage and academic disengagement — such as eligibility for federally subsidized lunches or a history of truancy issues. Students can opt to participate, or be strongly urged to by their high school.
Ninety-four percent of BUILD students come from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in higher education. Almost three-quarters would be the first in their families to go to college. The nonprofit currently reaches more than 1,200 students in the Bay Area, the District of Columbia, and Boston, and has served many more since its founding in 1999.
D.C. 11th-graders Andre (TJ) Hudson and Eric Hawkins started their clothing-design business with a hoodie that expressed opposition to youth violence. They used a heat press and transfer paper to prepare their latest product: white hoodies emblazoned with the words “Talented and Gifted.” The new hoodies, TJ says, spread the message that you can be smart and fashionable at the same time.
Less than half of freshmen at TJ and Eric’s high school graduate in four years. Without a high school diploma— or with only a high school diploma—opportunity is hard to come by. Despite D.C.’s booming economy, in some neighborhoods about one-third of 16- to 24-year-olds are neither in school nor working, according to the nonprofit Social Science Research Council. About 6 million young people nationwide are “disconnected” from both the education system and the workforce. The longer they stay in that limbo, the harder it is to get out.
The nonprofit encourages students to stay in school beyond twelfth grade, recognizing that they’ll be better equipped for today’s job market if they go to college. “We make it pretty clear for our students that the goal isn’t to run their business in college or to run it after the BUILD program, but to use it as a vehicle to become more college-ready,” says Chris Brown, head of BUILD’s D.C. program. Two-year, four-year and vocational degrees are all encouraged.
Students enter the program through a ninth-grade elective called Entrepreneurship 101, taught at a partner high school by a teacher there. At least once a week, students head to BUILD’s regional offices to work on their ideas. Each team is paired with a volunteer mentor from the corporate world. After ninth grade, BUILD becomes an after-school program, and students can choose whether they want to stay involved.
True to its East Palo Alto roots, BUILD borrows from the language and rituals of the technology start-up world. At the end of ninth grade, students pitch their idea to a panel of judges, as if they were exiting an accelerator program. In 10th grade, each team meets with a local venture capitalist who — if the team had a solid plan for repaying the money — lends a team up to $1,000. Half of BUILD D.C. students break even within a year, and all repay their loans within two years. Any extra profits students earn are theirs to keep.
“Few things are going to teach you grit, and force you to learn how to communicate, and teach you to persevere and to be more resourceful, than actually trying to build and scale a business,” says Evan Burfield, a BUILD supporter and cofounder of 1776, a D.C. start-up incubator. All kinds of high schools could benefit from giving students a space to work on long-term entrepreneurship projects with mentors, he says; he helped set up such a program at his alma mater, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, an elite magnet school in Virginia.
Come senior year, most BUILD teams cash out of their businesses and focus on college applications. BUILD staff and mentors organize college visits, help students prepare and pay for admissions tests, and give them advice on choosing a major. The nonprofit also provides academic support services for students in all grades, delivered differently at each regional site.
Yet while BUILD increases the likelihood that students will go to college, it doesn’t dramatically improve grades and test scores. “What we’ve found is that we’re really not moving the needle much, for the amount of resource we put into it,” says Charles Salter, president of BUILD. And although BUILD seniors have high college-going rates, more than half of BUILD freshmen leave the program before senior year, usually because they move or have other after-school commitments.
It takes a lot of time, money, and emotional energy to change the lives of teenagers, many of whom face heartbreaking challenges outside of school. Between mentors, tutors, venture capitalists, and staff, BUILD’s D.C. region has an adult supporter for every two students. Averaged across all regional sites and all students, the program costs about $6,000 per student per year. Philanthropic donations account for almost all its funding.
Salter believes that BUILD can halve its per-student costs as it expands. Money-saving changes under consideration include de-emphasizing tutoring, using high school classrooms as after school workspaces and adding internships. Students would arguably gain more from a successful internship experience than from a few extra points on the SAT, Salter says. The school-based incubator idea is being piloted in D.C. this year.
“What we talk about is the ‘but for BUILD’ moment,” says Peter Mellen, a CEO and former chair of BUILD’s D.C. advisory board. One D.C. student became a mother before the end of ninth grade. Now an 11th-grader, she and her team sell baskets filled with everything moms need for a new baby. But for BUILD, the young mom likely wouldn’t have stayed in high school.
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