CHESTERFIELD • In the early morning, before most businesses are open at the Chesterfield Mall, Marie Arends and Gracie Olderman are sitting down to brainstorm ideas to build their customer base for their child care website.
Across the storefront space, a fellow startup company is talking about how to get a patent for its product, a compartmentalized bag for packing lunch. Another is prepping for a meeting with a potential investor of a straw it designed to evenly distribute butter in a tub of movie theater popcorn.
The founders of these startups are not 20-something entrepreneurs or business college graduates but teenagers who are getting access to a network of professionals who can help make their business idea a reality — all during their senior year of high school.
“It’s real world. If we fall, we have to learn to get back up,” said Adam Liu, a senior at Parkway South High School.
The program, called Spark!, has a new business incubator this year in the Chesterfield Mall, a space where students use problem solving, critical thinking and personal responsibility to develop the mindset of a entrepreneur, all with guidance from not only their teacher but successful business owners and others from St. Louis’ burgeoning startup scene.
The seniors earn elective credits and are accepted into the program by application. They spend five to seven hours per week away from their home high school and at the mall workspace, sponsored by Maryville University.
“You have this opportunity to create a business at 17 or 18 years old. How cool is that?” said Lorna Dalton, another senior from Parkway South.
Christopher Young, high school division director for DECA, a nonprofit with programs across the nation and the world to prepare students to become business leaders, said Parkway’s program is part of the trend toward more entrepreneurial instruction in high schools.
“Before, it was a unit covered in a business or marketing class, now it’s a very focused specialized program,” Young said.
It is also an example of how the business community and education can partner to produce personalized learning experiences that educate the workforce of the future, especially in high skill, high demand jobs, district officials and partners say. The Spark! program also has tracks in health sciences and teaching and learning, with dual credit for college.
For the business incubator, it was important for the space to allow an experience outside of school — somewhere that would inspire creativity and give students the needed focus, said Xanthe Meyer, teacher and director of the incubator program.
The former space once occupied by a Pottery Barn Kids store now has large bean bag sofas, bright colors and a coffee bar, far from the gray cubicles pictured by some of the students before they started. Getting out of school to work in a cool space helps keep the energy up for their projects, but it also helps with collaboration, a key part of the program, Meyer said.
“When they leave school, they leave the drama and everything else there, too,” Meyer said.
Moving from group to group offering advice, encouragement and some tough love if needed, are those who have conquered the business world and started their own successful businesses.
“The network they’re building, it’s invaluable,” said Tony Spielberg, president of Red Label Accessories, who comes in to coach and give the students feedback. A Parkway Central graduate, he was glad to volunteer to give students this kind of opportunity. “They are so ahead of the game.”
The teenagers network with CEOs and other top business executives in their workspace, they also are required to attend networking events in the St. Louis area and meet a set goal – “5 for 5,” meaning you give out five business cards and get five from others.
Students say it pushes them out of their comfort zone, but it has increased their confidence.
“The experience is one of a kind for us as high schoolers. We are able to get our foot out the door,” said Arends, who helped develop the website, BeyondBabysitting.net.
Students learn how to take risks, how to get feedback from the marketplace and make adjustments. On a recent day, Arends and Olderman were talking with mentor Kevin Meuret about what would be the best way to show available babysitters on their site after hearing that a potential customer found it confusing. Meuret sensed their frustration.
“Remember, there are things we can control and things we can’t,” he said. “We want to focus on what we can control.”
These types of experiences, with students actually owning and operating their own business, are a great opportunity for the next generation of business leaders, said Young, the DECA staffer. And the timing is good, because most teenagers don’t have to worry about making enough profit to pay a mortgage or debt.
“They have new ideas, they have new tools that didn’t exist ... even a year ago. The barriers to entry are much less now than they used to be,” Young said. “It makes it a good time to explore it, no doubt, with the technology available and the notion that they are at a low risk point in their life.”
Annalise Ruzicka said her parents were worried that she would have one of those “senior slide” years, where students coast, rather than push themselves, through what remains of high school after college acceptances and scholarships already have been secured.
Ruzicka is one of the students from Parkway North High School working on the idea for a popcorn straw, which attaches to the butter dispenser at a movie theater and has holes from top to bottom to evenly dispense butter.
She said the incubator experience did the opposite, motivating her in a way she hadn’t been before.
“My parents say it saved my senior year,” Ruzicka said. “It totally beat my expectations.”