Innovation Generation: Preparing a Generation of Entrepreneurs
August 28, 2012|
By Mark Swiger
When DreamQuest, the high school competition that drew attention to the need for young entrepreneurs, was recently discontinued in West Virginia, the future of student engagement in business looked bleak. Recent movements in restoring an even more systemic approach to entrepreneurship, however, has those involved in K-12 education, higher education, business and government excited about the prospects for keeping our brightest business minds right here in the Mountain State.
The West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) is presently developing a K-12 entrepreneurship education strategy with the help of West Virginia’s entrepreneur community, members of higher education and nonprofit business development entities. According to Dr. Gene Coulson, executive director of the Office of Career and Technical Innovation at WVDE, support from the 42 active participants in the education entrepreneur stakeholder meetings this past winter and spring has been tremendous and he hopes that more entrepreneurs will join the movement.
Coulson sees this public-private partnership as a way of providing creativity to the movement while modeling real-world collaborative solutions for the future of West Virginia’s children.
“Building on entrepreneurship education activities developed over the last few years and with the support of West Virginia entrepreneurs and post-secondary institutions, we intend to grow the entrepreneurial culture of West Virginia,” says Coulson.
This move is refreshing for the state, where the median age of its citizens is one of the oldest in the nation. Keeping the brightest and most creative young people here by fostering pathways that encourage parents and teachers to get students more involved in the real-world application of knowledge is imperative.
Jeff James, the CEO and founder of Mythology, LLC, the founder and chair of Create West Virginia and a board member of Vision Shared, sees the need for entrepreneurship education from a historical, cultural and systemic perspective. A cultural shift from the job paradigm to the career paradigm is essential for West Virginia.
“Growing entrepreneurship in West Virginia is about rediscovering our history, which is rooted in exploration and risk-taking by early settlers,” says James. “We have been somewhat stuck in a dependent mindset for the last few generations as a reaction to industrial and government institutional influences brought on during the Industrial Revolution, but West Virginia’s future, like our country’s, is tied to a new wave of grass roots innovation and startup activity. Once we embrace this cultural shift and take pride again in our ability to build self-sustaining economic activity, there is no stopping West Virginia.”
The movement for a vibrant educational environment for young entrepreneurs doesn’t stop with K-12 education. Higher education institutions have begun to embrace entrepreneurship education as well. West Virginia University, Marshall University, Fairmont State University, West Virginia State University and West Liberty University all participated in the most recent stakeholder meeting, and Shepherd University has also been involved in the discussions. These institutions and others have agreed to be a collaborative force for educating and nurturing young entrepreneurs.
West Virginia State University, in partnership with Create West Virginia, has developed DigiSo™, a digital media and startup incubator at the institution’s business development facility on Charleston’s West Side. West Liberty University’s Center for Entrepreneurship in Wheeling has established an educator entrepreneurship certification program that can serve as a vehicle for teacher recertification if districts are interested in taking entrepreneurship education to another level. All of these institutions see the strategies for encouraging young startup businesses as a positive factor in student recruitment and business retention in the state.
James, Coulson and the 40-plus other individuals involved in assisting the WVDE in developing strategies for involving the business community have already seen advances since the first stakeholders meeting in February. Both James and Coulson know that the movement isn’t enough, though, and that action must be taken beyond planning.
The importance of tying learning to application and adaptation through the entrepreneurship challenge is probably best stated by students themselves. Ryan Gellner is a recent graduate of John Marshall High School in Marshall County and a member of the team that was named a semi-finalist in the Conrad Foundation’s Spirit of Innovation Challenge for the “Green Gym,” a sustainable and regenerative business success that ties clean energy, health and nutrition to social entrepreneurship.
“We believe that because we took both AP classes, such as AP government and AP calculus, and career and technical classes like drafting, we are better able to see the whole picture in creating and testing ideas for real-life situations,” says Gellner. He and two of his three business partners will be majoring in engineering at West Virginia University this fall and will continue to grow their West Virginia business with guidance from the multiple departments at the institution.
Gellner and his team’s business is just one example that shows that West Virginia is full of young minds ripe for successful businesses at home, and this is all the encouragement Coulson needs to continue the efforts of encouraging entrepreneurship education in the Mountain State.
“If students are exposed to entrepreneurship and encouraged to think about it as a career pathway,” he says, “many of them will choose to open businesses in West Virginia.”