Telluride High School students with an entrepreneurial bent can now learn the tools for starting a business. Launched last year by Telluride R-1 school board president Stephanie Hatcher, whose background as a tech lawyer in Silicon Valley during the internet boom and in new ventures/startup companies and communities, made her perfectly suited to conceive the program.
Hatcher first reached out to the Johnson Family Foundation and connected with COO Dylan Hoos and together they worked to fund the program curriculum and teacher position by securing two grants over two years totaling $40,000. Three years ago, Hatcher, Hoos and former superintendent, Mike Gass, met for the first of dozens of meetings to create the program.
“The three of us researched and met folks from around the country who oversee or support youth entrepreneurship programs,” Hoos said. “We chose various elements from these programs and adapted them to create a unique program specific to the Telluride community.”
Hatcher describes their unique spin on the program as “social entrepreneurship.”
“This approach to innovation reflects Telluride’s strong and unique culture of community,” she said. “Kids are naturally drawn to do good, too. And for their ideas to benefit our community is just plain cool.”
Now in its third semester, the class encompasses coursework, community-based organization and outreach that connects mentors and businesses with students who then develop entrepreneurship skills like critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, inquiry, adaptability and innovation to solve real local and global problems.
“Building that mindset from an early age is important because jobs and the economy are changing,” Hatcher said. “When these students enter the workforce, they’ll be taking jobs that don’t yet exist. The curriculum is based on a design-thinking model, which has been proven to close achievement gaps and break limiting mindsets. It instills perseverance and research shows that these qualities carry beyond the classroom.”
This year, “Introduction to Entrepreneurship,” a semester-long elective, is being taught by high school social studies teacher Kelly Boykin. While students in grades 9-12 are eligible to take the course, most students enrolled this year are in 11th and 12th grades. Meeting four days a week, students focus on a problem in the community that they can solve and procced through a design-based curriculum to try to identify a project that they could start that could benefit the local community.
Students are offered an option for an independent study where mentor connections are made. Hatcher volunteered to teach the class last spring, working with Bonnie Watson, Managing Director of Telluride Venture Network (TVN), pairing students with mentors.
“TVN's role in this program is to provide valuable and well-rounded mentors -- ideally previous entrepreneurs — to help students vet the viability of their business idea and help identify the correct means to scale that idea,” explained Watson. “Our mentors are here to provide fundamental business mentorship in the areas of product validation, market fit and supply and demand.”
One project that emerged last spring was a subscription-based composting program that operated out of Norwood that involved a student thinking through the logistics of dropping-off and picking-up composting for regional clients. Another project developed a recurring donation model for the fire department that emerged from research in which a student discovered that the ADE program isn’t continually funded for defibrillators.
Hatcher notes that while there is “synergism” between the new entrepreneurship class and the longer-standing mentorship program at the high school where students work in an established local business, the class is different.
“In this program, students identify a problem in their community or something they’re passionate about and come up with a solution by looking at what’s already out there and then try to create innovation that solves it,” Hatcher explained. “This is really about students coming up with the business solution.”
Hoos says the goal of the class is to educate and motivate the next generation of impact-driven entrepreneurial leaders who reflect Telluride’s unique community and contribute to solutions for local and international issues.
“What’s more important than teaching students critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving skills, and creativity?” he said. “This class doesn’t teach students for a test; rather it teaches life skills that will be immediately applicable in college, or the workforce, or in creating their own nonprofit or business.”
Originally, Boykin said, the district was just going to offer one semester of the Introduction to Entrepreneurship class this year. Where last year there were about 50 students enrolled in the class over two semesters, this year there are closer to 60 students enrolled over two semesters, enabling Boykin to expose more kids to the class.
“This program is a great representation of the Telluride community,” Hoos said. “My hope is that other folks will see what we see and help support this program as donors and mentors so that it can be a permanent part of the local school curriculum.”