By Sharon Fisher | February 23, 2022
Whether it’s a lemonade stand or putting on a circus, kids have traditionally dreamed of being entrepreneurs. Now, three programs are underway in Idaho to help high school and college students make their entrepreneurial dreams come true and give them a solid foundation of skills for the future.
All three programs are fairly new, and of course issues surrounding COVID-19 in schools have made it challenging for teachers and students to participate. But Idaho’s tech community is hoping that the programs will continue to grow.
“The last two years have been very difficult,” said Tiam Rastegar, executive director at Trailhead Boise. “Teachers have a lot going on, students have a lot going on. We’re hit-and-miss in being able to recruit more schools. That’s one of our goals. The first year, we went on the road and went to these schools and pitched this thing to them. We couldn’t do that the past two years. The best advocates are schools that have already done this.”
Eventually, the programs could become better coordinated, with one proceeding to the next.
“Youth is our future pipeline,” Rastegar said. “There’s something truly empowering about entrepreneurship. When kids are in problem-solving mode, they gain a ton of confidence.” That pipeline has already started, he said, noting that this year’s Boise Entrepreneur Week winner Adam Stock came through the ranks of the college Idaho Entrepreneur Challenge program.
You Lead Idaho
In its third year is You Lead Idaho, intended to help promote entrepreneurship in rural Idaho high schools.
“It’s a program that Trailhead designed in partnership with KeyBank and the Idaho Digital Learning Alliance (IDLA),” Rastegar explained. “It all started with wanting to affect the go-on rate (to education after high school).”
In the three years the program has been in existence, 107 students have participated, winning a total of $50,000 in scholarships and prize money for their schools – including stipends for the teachers who participate. Judges are drawn from program sponsors, which this year were the STEM Action Center and Verizon, in addition to presenting sponsor KeyBank.
The initial program was spearheaded by Boise serial entrepreneur Faisal Shah. “Faisal felt there was a need,” Rastegar said. “Students are super talented. How do we reach them and empower them?”
First, students in the program take a full semester online dual credit course in entrepreneurship, provided by the IDLA. “It’s robust and difficult,” Rastegar said. It starts in September.
But the course is just the beginning. “Then we pair them up with a Boise-based mentor, and work with teachers,” Rastegar said. “After they take 16 weeks of this course, it culminates in a final pitch,” held the first week in January. “Kids pick problems from their community.” Examples include the “Amazon of tractor parts,” which would help reduce downtime of farm equipment, to recycling plastic toys that would otherwise fill up the landfill, he said.
This year’s winner, from Shoshone High School, was “In or Out,” and it was based on a real problem the local volleyball team was having. “Supposedly there was a bad call from a ref – they said the ball was in when it was out – and they lost their chance to go to State,” Rastegar said. “They came up with technology based on optical stuff to track a ball, whether it’s in or out.”
Coming in second place was Murtaugh High School. “Our project was Aspire VR, software that provides schools with VR learning experiences to solve the problems of non-hands-on learning,” said Chance Worthington, who participated as a junior and is planning to participate again as a senior, in an email message. “I learned a lot more about teamwork by doing this contest,” he said. “Normally I would try to do things myself, but I learned a group is better. This contest had a good effect on me. It opened my eyes to a whole other side to what I could go to school for.”
And it’s those new options that make the program valuable.
“I am always looking for opportunities to promote students to new activities, networking with adults outside of their comfort zone and showing them life outside of a small town,” said Shelli Schroeder, a school counselor for the Shoshone School District, in an email message. “As beneficial as it is to be in a small community, it can sometimes become too easy and comfortable, which leads to students not wanting to explore and grow. Quite frankly it becomes too scary for them to leave what they know, so they stay. We need to create opportunities for them to leave in small doses so they become more confident, grow in their abilities to talk to adults and peers whom they don’t know and learn the skills necessary to believe they can accomplish a goal, even if the process is making them uncomfortable.”
Adding prizes to the program sharpens students’ competitive spirit, Schroeder said. “The value came in adding the idea of a competition with tangible prize money to earning the college credits against small schools,” she said. “The students who participated are involved in extracurricular activities, are naturally high-achieving and naturally competitive. They wanted to beat some of the small-town schools they knew were participating because they play them in sports. That made it immediately fun for them and sparked an interest.”
At the same time, competing with other rural Idaho schools made the goal more achievable, Schroeder said. “If they only had to compete against Boise schools, I think they may not have had the confidence to try.”
Youth Innovation Challenge
Held during Boise Entrepreneur Week, the Youth Innovation Challenge is a “reverse pitch” competition, where Idaho organizations such as Albertsons, the City of Boise, Black Box VR, Cradlepoint, and ClickBank create source problem statements that participating students go on to solve.
Launched last year, it has had about 80 participants in its two years, with about 50 teams from high school and 30 from college, Rastegar said. Typically, teams have two or three members.
“We’re trying to create a competition that’s easily accessible,” Rastegar said. “Any high school or college student can participate. These are real problems businesses and civic leaders are experiencing.”
After a four-week ideation period, students video-pitch their solution. Each winning team gets $3,000, and the winning high school gets an additional $1,000, Rastegar said.
“Our project was called Lab Run, which we created for Black Box VR’s challenge to create a virtual reality workout video game,” said Saumya Sarin, a Boise-based senior at One Stone, who teamed up with senior Elani Waight. “The player sees their avatar run from a mad scientist in third-person view. The player must complete different exercises to overcome different obstacles, such as a squat to crouch under something, or a squat jump to jump over something. We came up with this idea by doing a ‘sticky note throwdown,’ where we gave ourselves five minutes to write down every idea that came into our heads, no matter how strange or unachievable, onto a sticky note. We both fell in love with the initial idea for Lab Run, and we combined ideas from some of the other sticky notes to make it even better.
“Through participating, I learned about entrepreneurship, collaboration, virtual reality, and video game design,” Sarin continued. “I would love to compete again with Elani at the collegiate level, and I will be on the lookout for more entrepreneurship opportunities. This was my first time dipping my toes into the world of entrepreneurship and business, and I definitely gained some valuable insights that I can use no matter what career field I pursue.”
The University of Idaho won the college-level competition and demonstrated that not all the winners had to be technical. “My team’s project was improving the value proposition statement for Albertsons,” said Payton Barber, who graduated in December and moved to Boise from her hometown in Coeur d’Alene. “We chose this as COVID had such a great impact in recent years and, more specifically, in the retail and the customer service industry. As millennials commonly hold these jobs, we decided to improve the proposition statement geared toward millennials. Saying that, we decided to add aspects like a mentorship program and in-house financial advising for all employees.”
While Barber doesn’t think she’ll participate again because she now has a full-time job, she found it valuable. “I learned the importance of business value proposition statements and how they need to be continuously developing and evolving,” she said. “Entering the competition made me realize how much college students have great, potential ideas that could affect the future of businesses. Even though we are just starting out in the working world, it is never too early to start working on ideas.”
Boise State Venture College High School Idaho Entrepreneurial Challenge (HSIEC)
Now in its fifth year, in 2022 HSIEC boasted 20 teams from 10 high schools, with 66 students.
“The process starts in the fall with the teachers,” said Nic Miller, executive director of the Venture College at Boise State University. Any class can participate but typically the program works with business or economics classes. “We work with them through the ideation phase and coming up with a prototype. We provide mentors who go out to each school, work with students, and develop the concept.” Typically, there’s a preliminary competition where teams compete with peers at their school, and the winners go on to the statewide competition, he added.
High school teams win $3,700 in prizes, while the college level program has more than $50,000 in prizes, Miller said. Funding for the program is raised from local companies such as Truckstop.com and Wells Fargo.
What’s particularly interesting about You Lead Idaho participation is that it funnels right into HSIEC, which starts just a week or two after You Lead Idaho finishes. “Teams from You Lead Idaho have the option to participate in IEC,” Rastegar said. “Almost all of them, without exception, have done so, because they literally just have to change their pitch a little bit,” such as changing it from seven minutes to four minutes. This year, five teams from You Lead Idaho went on to HSIEC, said Cara Van Sant, marketing and communications manager for the Venture College, in an email message. And for the past two years, You Lead winners have gone on to win the high school IEC, Rastegar noted – including Shoshone High School’s In or Out project.
In fact, some high schools, such as Boise High School, Meridian Technical Charter High School, and One Stone, have made the program a part of their regular curriculum, Rastegar said. “They’re adapting it, and it’s not just us waving the flag of entrepreneurship over here,” he said. “It’s teachers saying, ‘This is important. Win money. Go solve problems.’
“We’re planting the seeds of entrepreneurship,” Rastegar continued. “These students have mostly never heard of ‘customer discovery’ or the ‘ideation process.’” Instead, students – all of us, really – are trained to avoid problems and take the path of least resistance, he said. “We want to create a problem and teach the students to go toward the problem,” he said. “It’s all about problem-solving. Not all of these students are going to become entrepreneurs. But they’re going to get a crack at entrepreneurship, using the mindset and the tools in a team environment. Those are transferable skills that make them better employees – and better entrepreneurs.”