Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Alamo Heights High School students will vie for $10,000 – and bragging rights – in a "Shark Tank" style competition that will take them through the group process of becoming a startup.
The 130 junior and senior students are participating in the year-long Heights Business Incubator, an elective course that leads students from the idea phase to the development phase and through to pitching the product for their new business. The winners will receive $10,000 to fund their entrepreneurial venture.
Students were assigned to groups at the beginning of September – matched to complement one another based on their knowledge, personality, and soft skills – and have begun generating ideas for their respective projects. Among the initial ideas are a mobile hair salon, biodegradable diapers, and a nonprofit program that pairs high schoolers with hospitalized teenagers for friendship.
The program has 30 experts who have signed up to provide coaching to the young entrepreneurs in areas such as business law, patenting, financial analysis, and graphic design, said lead teacher Patrice Bartlett. Forty mentors with entrepreneurial experience also have been assigned to each of the student teams.
"I would absolutely say that's a huge part of this," Matthew Markette, a junior, said. "If it was just a business class that taught us business concepts that'd be great, but since we have such a strong community backing us, it's just going to take us to that next level this course. It's going to take it beyond just the classroom aspect so we can branch it out into the real world."
It's a learn-by-doing approach that Alamo Heights High School faculty and parents say is already bringing a level of engagement among the students that they rarely see.
Henry Sauer, who sits on the Heights Business Incubator board, said his son, who is in the program, previously would come home with monosyllabic answers when asked about his day at school. Now, Sauer said, his son is excited to talk about his experiences.
"We've had conversations about his ideas and how's his group, and he's bringing it up," Sauer said. "It's awesome."
Once the students commit to a business concept – after thorough research – the 30 teams of four or five will each be given $500 to develop a prototype that will help them determine whether they can feasibly move forward with their idea. From there, students will test and refine their product or pivot if it doesn't work.
To help accomplish this, the school has transformed two traditional classrooms and closets into spaces outfitted with technology such as touch-screen displays at six work pods, a 3D printer, a boardroom-style space, and teleconferencing rooms for Google Hangouts with experts or people who have developed similar products. Students can pass a wireless foam microphone, like a football, to capture audio when the entire class is videoconferencing with a coach.
The financial backing for the incubator program and classroom updates comes mostly from the Alamo Heights School Foundation, but private donors in the local business community also contributed, according to Sauer and spokeswoman Patti Pawlik-Perales.
Bartlett learned about the idea nearly two years ago at South by Southwest EDU, a national education conference in Austin, and brought the idea to her administrators. The curriculum for the national program, known as IncubatorEDU, was developed by Illinois-based nonprofit Uncharted Learning and is being taught in 122 schools nationwide and one in Mexico, Bartlett said.
"If students haven't found their niche going through high school, this could be it," she said.
"We talk to them about [how] these skills are life skills," she added. "It doesn't mean you have to be a business major, although some of them are interested in being business majors. But even if you want to be a musician this can help you figure how to market yourself."
Senior Natalia Garcia said the incubator program helps support students so that they can make their business concepts realities.
"That's the determining factor 90 percent of the time ... that willingness to push through and see your goal through no matter how many people say it's wrong, no matter how many problems it has," said Sam Sibbel, a junior. "It's really the big businesses that get through those tough times that make them what they are."