High schools have been teaching business courses for years. But a curriculum new to North Texas is bringing a hands-on approach to eight schools this year. In our continuing American Graduate Initiative, we visit a class in Fort Worth’s Trimble Tech High School.
From the start, it’s easy to see that this class is a bit unusual. There are no blackboards, no white boards, no desks. We’re not even in a classroom. It’s the library. And the teacher today, Grant Mankin, isn’t even on Trimble Tech’s faculty.
“You can go sit at a table,” Mankin tells the students, “But just get in those groups. Do that now, you’ve got one minute.”
Clock ticking, the students find seats. And the heat’s about to rise. The class begins to feel like "Shark Tank," the hit TV show where entrepreneurs seek funding for products they pitch to business leaders.
“You are in your groups. I hope you’ve chosen wisely,” Mankin warns in a foreboding voice, “because these groups are now your company.”
Mankin then issues today’s first challenge.
“You have five minutes to use a tennis racket in a different way than to play tennis. Ready? Five minutes. Go!”
One group ponders its options. A student suggests a waffle maker. Another a fly-swatter. Sixteen-year-old Cazandra Renteria weighs the ideas.
“Can we just improve it, right? Can we change the model of it?” Fellow students toss out possibilities. Working as a team, solving a problem under pressure, is part of the interactive approach from the education nonprofit called Youth Entrepreneurs, out of Kansas.
O.J. Abanishe likes the group’s hands-on approach. He normally teaches this Trimble Tech business class but steps aside a few times a month to make way for Youth Entrepreneurs.
“Most entrepreneurship classes, you would pretty much teach it like a biz management course,” Abinishe says. “Talk a lot about business plans, market groups. The kids are learning while having fun. So they’re learning without even knowing that they’re learning, at times.”
The students keep working on their tennis racket competition. One group comes up with a cheese slicer. Another, snowshoes. One creates a boat paddle. Cazandra’s foursome decides on a multi-purpose product. She presents it to judges – the teachers.
“It can be used as a fly killer, a pasta drainer, waffle maker and it can also be used like a propeller, to take you places, because he didn’t say it had to be realistic, did he? No he didn’t. And it can also be used as a skateboard and a fan,” Cazandra says confidently.
Mankin offers his critique.
“There was one product that did everything,” he says. “Do you think that’s a good way to market a product? No way I’m going to be making waffles on the same thing I’m going to be swatting flies with, right?”
Lesson learned. First-hand experience is often the teacher here, less so than from a book. Mankin’s other lessons? Your product should do one thing better than anything else out there. He also says name it.
“How are you going to sell a product if you don’t have anything to call it? How many times you ever seen a product on TV that doesn’t have a name? You don’t,” Mankin says. “It could have a really stupid name, but at least it has a name, right?”
Before Cazandra took this class, she thought her options were limited. This entrepreneur class opens things up.
“Mostly, the things that they had was cosmetology. So I thought it really didn’t connect to me because I’m not the ‘girly’ type. What I want to do is make things,” Cazandra says. “I find that fascinating. I like to sell products because I like to go meet people, interact with people and it’s something I would like to do in the future.”
Trimble Tech Principal Omar Ramos is on board with this effort. He likes its fresh approach.
“The kids need to see a real live person from the industry or from the outside and talk to them and say 'this is how things work, OK?' They need to hear it from the outside and they’ll say there’s actual application to what coach is telling us.”
Even if Cazandra or her classmates don’t become entrepreneurs – and instructor Mankin says most won’t – he also says lessons from this class should serve her and anyone well.
“You can’t teach someone how to be an entrepreneur,” Mankin says, “But you can teach someone how to think like one. Twenty percent of our alumni start their own business. That leaves 80 percent that aren’t entrepreneurs. But those kids are doing bigger and better things. They’re thinking like an entrepreneur, whether they’re accountants, whether they’re going to college, they’re owning what they’re doing they’re owning their own success.”
Mankin also says that creative teamwork, thinking on your feet, speaking publicly, and confidently — those skills aren’t just for entrepreneurs — they are universal.