“When kids feel like they can be creative, they tend to do better,” David Chaney Jr. said.
The elevator door slammed and rattled, and Tahani Freeman took a deep breath.
“Did you know that there are nail technicians who use unhealthy products for your nails because it’s cheaper? Well, Safe Slay offers top-of-the-line nail products that are affordable,” said Freeman, polishing her pitch for the business she had dreamed up.
Citywide, 14,000 students are enrolled in Philadelphia School District summer programs from elementary-school enrichment to a newcomer academy for young people in the earliest stages of English language development.
And at Central High, a group of teens is learning how to be entrepreneurs. Startup Edu teaches high schoolers from around the city foundational business skills — writing business plans, targeting a market, and delivering an elevator pitch. (In some cases, in an actual elevator.)
The 15 students enrolled in the program start with a business idea, then spend four weeks fleshing it out, culminating in a pitch competition at the end of July. Although the program does not necessarily lead to the actual launching of a business, students hear about the joys and pitfalls of entrepreneurship from small-business owners, take trips, and work collaboratively to come up with the best ideas.
And through WorkReady, a Philadelphia Youth Network program, the students are paid for the summer — up to $1,000, depending on their participation and attendance.
“We communicate with them that this is a work experience,” said Christine Liang, program manager in the district’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness. “They think of each other as colleagues, they think of us as their employers, and they have to let us know when they’re calling out. And kids are coming into this with a level of curiosity and readiness to participate.”
On a recent day, David Chaney Jr., another Office of Postsecondary Readiness program manager, stood in front of the class and asked students to share their pitches. One wants to start a pet day care center, another plans a mobile health care clinic, and a third plans a business showcasing artists from underrepresented communities.
“Would you be able to explain your business to someone else, clearly and quickly?” Chaney asked. “You have about 30 to 60 seconds. Think about your audience — remember, you’re talking to investors, consumers, collaborators.”
Lexcie Velez signed up for Startup Edu because she was intrigued by the idea and, honestly, “it’s better than working any type of retail, or anything like that, said Velez, 17, a senior at New Foundations Charter High School.
Velez’s hypothetical start-up is “Buzz Beats,” headphones that would double as a safety device, with motion around users alerting them to potential dangers in their blind spots. With gun violence rising in Philadelphia, it’s a product Velez could see her parents wanting her to use.
Velez plans to go to college to study biomedical science to ultimately become a neurosurgeon, but gaining a foundation in business appeals to her.
“I obviously have lofty goals, but God forbid something goes wrong, I always have a skill to fall back on,” Velez said. “And I feel like this has given me a chance to put my opinion out, to let myself be heard by adults.”
Her classmate Freeman, 15, a Central sophomore, does want to own her own nail salon someday, and Startup Edu is helping her get there, Freeman said. It’s already sharpened her skills.
“I’ve learned a lot already,” Freeman said. “You have to be comfortable stepping out of your comfort zone. I don’t usually share in class, but I’ve been working on that, and I’ve been making friends.”
Startup Edu is in its third summer, but because of the pandemic, this is the first year that students are meeting in person. The in-person energy is great, said Chaney, who in addition to his work for the school district is an entrepreneur himself, running Noire Life Media, which a publication that focuses on telling the stories of Black people.
“When kids feel like they can be creative, they tend to do better,” Chaney said. “Testing them to death is not going to help.”
With practical projects, real deadlines, and the prospect of a competition to win — the top three students in the pitch competition earn gift cards — the program has lit a fire under students, Chaney said.
“I tell them, ‘I don’t care how silly your invention sounds, do it,’” Chaney said. “To see these kids really dig deep inside themselves, to pull out hopes and dreams and use their imaginations to create something amazing, that’s more than anything.”


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