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Launching a Pilot

At the Claremont Middle School in Oakland, California, 7th period for a group of students is a lot different than the rest of the school day.  The teenagers gather around computers, laser and vinyl cutters, and other tools of the “maker” trade as they design and build a variety of items they can sell to friends, local businesses and even strangers walking past the school.  The class is a pilot program run by Shane Skikne and Ariana Chae, as part of a startup called Launch Edu that aims to help students gain practical business skills through creating and selling their own products.

The Launch Edu pitch is simple:  “We use entrepreneurship as an introduction to making and making as an introducing to entrepreneurship. “

 In practice, that means dozens of student designing products to sell and heading out to sell them.  “Some students wanted a design class, others really wanted a business class. Here, we do both,” said Skikne. And they do it for a group of students not yet in high school.

Launch Edu was brought in to the Claremont Middle School by After-School All-Stars—a non-profit organization reaching 70,000 low-income and students of color across the country. “Our kids have unique challenges. One student told me ‘I can never get a job because people can’t get past what I look like.’ What we do in this program is give them “making” skills and then teach them how to sell, and all of a sudden they can create their own job,” said Namrata Gupta, executive director of the Bay Area chapter.

Gupta was particularly intrigued by a startup led by alumni from Olin College because “there is a lot of innovation happening with new school models throughout the country, there are islands of innovation. One of the things I decided was to build bridges from innovative schools to regular schools.”

Since the start of the program in August, 60 students have made over $2,000 worth of products and continue to improve their skills as makers and entrepreneurs.

Skikne and Chae encourage the students to come up with their own ideas. One student is making 100 wooden postcards, another is designing keychains. Still others have made handmade candles, personalized picture frames and a slime made from glue and borax—a best seller.  Two students even tackled a laser cut ukulele. “They are going to make something that looks cool, but definitely does not play music,” said Skikne. Will it sell is the question, because after the items are made, the second part of the class begins.

 “We have them walk up to people and ask them to buy their products. They learn about presenting themselves, they learn to handle rejection. We practice their pitches. They also learn how to make things that people will buy,” said Skikne. “We encourage them to make things people value, not just products to sell.”

Take for instance, the story of one student, who we will call B, who came to class but would often just sit sullenly in the corner. On a day when few students showed up, Skikne had the chance to support B for the entire class. B wanted to make something for one of his favorite teachers. B explained that this teacher would always listen when B had trouble behaving. B wanted to make a gift for the teacher as a way of saying thank you. Skikne asked, “Have you ever given a teacher a gift before?” and B replied, “No, I never really thought I could.” B ended up making a laser cut gift containing logos of all the things the teacher liked. Shane later heard from the teacher that B had left the gift on his desk with explanation, just a note saying “Thank you”.

When asked about their experiences with the class, students had all kinds of responses. One student explained that this is her favorite class, because it allows her to be creative and try things out. “Even in art class, we’re told exactly what to work on,” she said. Another student told Skikne and Chae that she was using the money earned in the class to help her family with rent.

For Skikne, who had been considering several job offers after graduation, this startup fit many of his interests. “It just seemed to me that it was worth putting a year of my life into it. The students love it and it is clear we are making an impact. So I want to see if we can continue that.”

After-School All-Stars would like Launch Edu to expand its reach by training teachers in other districts to run their own programs. “I can see that it’s working. I want this prototype to have a chance to succeed in 20 other cities. Right now we’re trying to raise $100,000 which would give us a chance to create a ‘program in a box’ essentially and reach even more students,” said Gupta.

To learn more about Launch Edu and to donate, please go to their website.