‘Shark Tank’-like program at Thomas Jefferson HS builds entrepreneurial skills

March 21, 2018 GMT

In Barrington, Ill., Julie Thornton heard from neighbors and friends about the great things high school students were doing in their entrepreneurship class.

They started businesses and participated in a “Shark Tank”-like forum, where community members stepped up and offered financial backing.

There was a buzz in the neighborhood, and it became a community affair.

“I was blown away by the kids,” said Thornton, of Jefferson Hills. “It was a way to really see kids succeed and shine.”

Thornton knew the success students had in the INCubatoredu program, a high school entrepreneurship course, where student teams create new products and service innovations and are trained by community leaders to build a successful business in an incubator like environment.

After moving to Jefferson Hills more than three years ago, she saw the West Jefferson Hills School District didn’t have a program like this.

On a whim, she emailed new Superintendent Michael Ghilani, not even knowing him, to tell him about the program.

Little did she know he already had heard of the program, run by Barrington-based nonprofit Uncharted Learning, and already mentioned the idea of launching the program at Thomas Jefferson High School to teacher Lisa Kostella, who was looking for a way to improve the entrepreneurship at the school.

“It was like all of the stars were aligning,” said Thornton, who serves as the program’s community champion in West Jefferson Hills.

After several conversations, Thornton, Ghilani and Kostella headed out to Barrington to tour the program live and in use. INCubatoredu will launch at Thomas Jefferson High School for the 2018-19 school year.

“For me it’s the opportunity this creates for the students in the end, whether it’s creating a product or service,” Kostella said. “This can be the start of a good life for them.”

Students watch ABC’s “Shark Tank” and often think that’s something that can only happen in the movies, Kostella said. This course will teach them that they can invent a product or service, start their own business and possibly even have financial support from community members.

A product, SnapClips, created by students enrolled in the INCubatoredu program at Wheeling High School just outside of Chicago recently was featured on “Shark Tank.”

There are 120 high schools signed up for the program for the 2018-19 school year, but only two in Pennsylvania, said Margarita Geleske, chief evangelist for Uncharted Learning.

“It’s an authentic, rigorous, hands-on program,” she said. “We teach them business by having them create their own business. Rather than having them be lectured at and learning vocabulary, like debit and credit and revenue, they actually learn what that means.”

Ghilani said the program utilizes the same entrepreneurship methodology that is taught at Harvard and Stanford and talks about his passion for it at Thomas Jefferson.

Kostella will attend a summit this summer to learn more about the program, as she develops the curriculum for Thomas Jefferson.

Students will start out with the question: What problem in the world would you like to solve?

“Subject matter experts” from the greater Pittsburgh area will be brought in to work with students at Thomas Jefferson to teach them from personal experience how to run a company, Thornton said.

Community volunteers are needed in three areas: to serve as coaches, where they teach students in the classroom on specific subject matter; mentors, who will lead a team throughout the program; and board of advisors, who will offer teams strategic evaluations during twice a year pitches of their businesses.

At the end of the course, a “Shark Tank”-like program is held in the community, where teams pitch their business and hope to find funders to keep them going.

Geleske said it works differently in every school. She tells the story of Barrington High School, where a group of students who didn’t receive any funding from their final pitch were noticed by a resident who went to the school the next day and offered $15,000 to back their business.

Or, as is the case at suburban Chicago’s Wheeling High School, the school district gives the winning teams $100 gift cards and an internship in the district.

At Thomas Jefferson, they’re looking for 20 to 25 community members who are committed, flexible and want to help students succeed to help with the program.

An open house will be held in May for interested community members to apply to volunteer.

Even if a product doesn’t get funded, Kostella said the life lessons and problem solving skills students learn are important.

“Think about how many different doors this will open,” Kostella said.

Thornton said the program will teach students that “risk is OK. Some of what you try is not going to work right.”

Instead of focusing on a grade, students will be focused on a business. Thornton also hopes this will promote academic excitement in the district.

“I want them to get on the bus and talk about INCubator because they’re so excited about it,” Kostella said.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.