by Chris Aviles
Awesome! You’ve decided to incorporate entrepreneurship into your classroom. But what style of education corporation (EdCorp) is right for you? What EdCorp structure will use to run your student-run business? The main variables to consider when picking a style is the number of students you see and the frequency with which you see them. For example, as a sophomore English teacher, I saw kids every other day for 90 minutes. Because I saw kids so frequently and for an extended period of time, I let them start and run their own businesses. When I started out at Fair Haven, I saw every kid in the school – more than 600 students – once every six days. Seeing so many kids for such a short period of time, it was best if we all ran an EdCorp together. Having taught with so many different schedules and class sizes, I’ve found three structures that work best:
FH Gizmos: The Amazon-Style EdCors
In FH Gizmos, students set out to find and solve problems and then sell the solutions. All students are part of a product team and when they have a product ready to sell, it goes on the online FH Gizmos marketplace. When a customer visits the website, they see all of the solutions FH Gizmos product teams have created. Like Amazon, FH Gizmos is a marketplace.
I am in charge of FH Gizmos. Students create the products while I handle most of the day-to-day operations of the EdCorps such as marketing. When it is time to sell a product, it is marketed as part of the FH Gizmos family of products. The FH Gizmos model is focused primarily on the design of new products and the experience of collaborating in teams.
If the entrepreneurial process is new to you as an educator, this EdCorp structure can be a great way to get started as it eases the class into a more student-driven environment while allowing the teacher to retain most of the control.
FH Grows: The Whole-Grade EdCorps
In FH Grows, students sell herbs and produce to restaurants and community members in our town. Every student is responsible for maintaining our gardens. When we have downtime in the garden, my seventh graders are responsible for growing our business. Teams take on a “department” role in areas they are interested in. I choose to let students stay in these departments as long as they like because growing student passion and developing expertise is important for middle schoolers. You can, however, rotate students through departments if you want them to try out each department.
The Design department is responsible for creating products for FH Grows to sell. The design department surveys the community to get a feel for what they might want to buy. Students have come up with products such as upcycled planters and garden ornaments, holiday flowers, spring vegetable starters, catnip bags, worm farms, and organic seed packets. The Design team is responsible for using our design process to create new and exciting products to sell alongside the produce we harvest from our garden.
People can’t support your business if they don’t know it exists. Our Marketing department is responsible for developing creative, engaging ways to tell the community the FH Grows story which lets them know that we’re open for business. It is a two-step process. First, students find the customers that make up our target market using market research, customer segmentation, and community outreach. Once we know who and where our customers are, students advertise our story with a call to action to encourage customers to buy our products.
Once people know our EdCorp exists, the Sales department is responsible for closing deals and generating revenue by helping customers see the value in our products. Whether potential customers visit our website, contact us via email or social media, or even send in a handwritten letter or note with their child: it is the job of the sales team to reach out and make contact with customers. They then move customers through our sales cycle. After a purchase, the sales team is responsible for gathering customer feedback, encouraging future purchases, and generating new leads to explore.
The Design, Marketing, and Sales departments can’t be successful without the Finance department. The finance department is responsible for tracking sales and making sure our financials are in order. They manage our ledger, inventory, and work with stakeholders in our district to make sure we have the money we need when we need it. Often, the finance team is tasked with using their creativity to minimize expenses and maximize revenue in FH Grows, which takes critical thinking and creative problem-solving. For example, one of our best selling products in FH Grows is our worm farms. Students start the worm farm for customers and then give it to customers along with a guide on how to maintain the worm farm and harvest the worm castings for fertilizer. We sell the worm farm for $150. In the beginning, we were only making 33% profit off the worm farms. Not satisfied with the low margin, the finance team found a new worm supplier, explained to them that we are a student-run business, and were able to secure a discount, which brought our profit margin over 50%.
An EdCorp that includes a large group of students or an entire grade and is structured like FH Grows sees the teacher move to a support role. The level of control you want to have in this environment is totally up to you, but you can’t have total control (nor should you want it). In FH Grows, student teams work together to come up with ideas to grow our business. Then, they pitch them to me and the rest of the students. We hold all-hands meetings where we look at our Business Model Canvas, as a simplified, one-page version of our business plan and decide on next steps. My vote, so long as students aren’t proposing something completely egregious, counts just as much as their vote. While I give my thoughts about a proposal, I’m often outvoted. I’m ok with that since half of the time the ideas I'm outvoted on end up doing well – which is awesome. Students feel empowered and make sure to let me know that their idea worked despite my protests. The other half of the time, the idea fails miserably, and that’s fine, too. Failure is a fantastic teacher, and I try to capitalize on these teachable moments as we break down why an idea failed and if there is anything worth saving about the idea.
FH Leads: The Incubator EdCorp
In FH Gizmos, my sixth-graders answer to me (and their customers, of course). They follow the vision I’ve laid out for FH Gizmos and focus on creating products rather than running the business. In FH Grows, my seventh graders take on more responsibility as they make grade-wide pitches they think will help our business grow. In this whole-class, whole-grade EdCorp, students take on more ownership of the business since we run it together. In the FH Leads, our incubator-style EdCorp, students take full ownership of their learning because we do not run a business together; they start and run their own business.
A business incubator is an organization designed to accelerate the growth of other businesses. In FH Leads, my goal as the COO is to help students start successful businesses that they can take with them when they graduate from middle school.
Students start by deciding on their teammates or co-founders. Next, students find a problem and develop a product or service to solve that problem. When students have a prototype of their product, they do user testing. A user is someone who will benefit from a student’s solution. If you develop a better dog leash, you wouldn’t test it with someone who doesn’t own a dog. User testing consists of putting their prototypes in the hands of users to get feedback. They watch users with their prototype and take notes on how the user reacts to the prototype. They ask users what they like about their prototype, what they would change, and how their prototype compares to the product they are currently using. After a lot of user testing, it is time for students to bring their product or service to market. Student teams create a Business Model Canvas to outline the next steps for their business. When they have a sound business model, they can apply for a business grant to help get their business off the ground. If I approve the grant, I will give them between $50-100, real money, to get their startup going. Students are then responsible for the continued design, marketing, sales, and financing of their business. If I have total control in FH Gizmos, I give up total control in FH Leads. Students are solely responsible for their business and its success.
To this end, as the teacher of FH Leads, it is important that I provide advice and feedback, but also opportunities to hear from others’ advice and feedback as well. I open up FH Leads to business owners in my community and experts I find worldwide. I have a pool of talented business professionals locally and abroad that can mentor students. Between my support, these mentors, and the experience they’ve gained in FH Gizmos and FH Grows, most of my students’ startups are able to turn a profit before they graduate.
In my experience, starting a business isn’t in every student’s wheelhouse. Even though I make it well known that FH Innovates classes are about disrupting the status quo, I still have students who aren’t comfortable with being their own boss. Some kids are afraid of failure, others are afraid of success, and some can’t find the creative confidence to build a business around solving a problem they care about. That is why if some students in FH Leads don’t want to start their own business, they can help a local, small business owner grow their business. If students choose, they can team up with a small business owner – almost like an intern – and help solve the challenges the business owner faces. If students don’t want to work for themselves, they have the option to work for someone else. Either way, students are put in a leadership position where they finish out the FH Innovates program in the FH Leads EdCorp, where they are pushed to find the agency needed to be responsible for their own success.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to incorporate entrepreneurship into your classroom check out my book The EdCorps Classroom!
Chris Aviles is a teacher at Knollwood middle school in the Fair Haven school district in Fair Haven, New Jersey. There he runs the renowned Fair Haven Innovates program he created in 2015.
The Fair Haven Innovates program is Fair Haven school district’s 21st-century life, innovation, and technology program for 4th to 8th graders. In FH Innovates, Chris guides students as they create and sell products that solve problems as part of student-run businesses that turn a real profit. Students can use a percentage of their profits to support the people and causes they care about through FH Gives. Chris chronicles his journey with entrepreneurship in the classroom and helps you get started, too, in his book The EdCorps Classroom.