Giving learners the business

Over the past several years a great deal of attention has been paid to innovation and entrepreneurship in education– is that a good thing? 

Encouraging young people to develop new ideas and share them is a good thing. But not every new idea is a good idea, and not every good idea should be monetized or made into a business.  Open-Source Learning champions passionate curiosity and putting ideas out into the world in ways that create value.  This is real entrepreneurship.  



This morning my friend Jesse called.  Jesse runs special education programs for high school students in California; we got to know each other through Open Source Learning.  Jesse’s students run hi-tech gardens, bike repair shops, and other projects through his courses.  They use Kanban boards and online tools to manage their work flow.

It’s important to push the envelope and challenge the status quo. If we didn’t, we’d never improve as individuals or as a society.

After we caught up Jesse said, “Hey, I want to run something by you.  I don’t know if it’s finally getting popular or if it’s just my filter bubble talking, but what do you think about the push for entrepreneurship in schools?  Is this just an extension of the innovation hype or is it something like what you described in your TED talk?”

He was referring to recent news that the desk-renting company WeWork—which recently attracted a $760M round of investment and is valued at $20B—announced its intent to open a school and influence education.  WeWork co-founder Rebekah Neumann told Bloomberg, “In my book, there’s no reason why children in elementary school can’t be launching their own businesses.”

Sometimes we confuse the truth with the stories we tell ourselves.  This is especially true in the world of entrepreneurship, where the boundary between visionary and heretic is often blurry and too often defined by financial success.  Steve Jobs was a hippie whack job with B.O. and a driving passion for “insanely great” products that few others understood – until his “Reality Distortion Field” spurred his employees to ship the insanely great products that changed the world.  Then Jobs became a genius.

It’s important to push the envelope and challenge the status quo. If we didn’t, we’d never improve as individuals or as a society.

It’s also important to question and think critically, especially in this Internet-enabled era of marketing magic and bullshit.

I am not an expert in business valuation, so when WeWork is reported to be the fifth-most valuable technology startup in the world, I think: “Wow.  That’s impressive.” I see the company is valued at $20B and I think: “Wow.  That’s a lot of money.”

What makes the company worth that much?  Does it provide that much value to the marketplace? Does it have an amazing P/E ratio?  A really good management team?  Well-connected advisors?  A super-sexy pitch deck? Or… what?

Further, how does the company’s initial success in commercial real estate, technology, and attracting investment speak to the founders’ experience or expertise in education or working with young people?

Still, I’m a big fan of entrepreneurship and I love creating out-of-the-box opportunities with students, so I reconsider Ms. Neumann’s quote on its face.  But it doesn’t hold water.  Apart from her questionable use of the invariant be, there are very good reasons that children in elementary school can’t – and shouldn’t – launch their own businesses.  Here are three:

  1. Real entrepreneurship is creating wonderful ideas and taking responsibility for them by putting them out into the world. There is certainly a value to approaching the world with a child’s mind and asking “Why not?” There is also value in taking time in childhood to build, learn, play, make fart noises, stare into space, and master the basic disciplines of being human.  You have no business being an entrepreneur until you know enough about the world and your place in it to understand the problems you’re solving, the opportunities you’re creating, and, most importantly, what ownership really means.  The nature of ownership depends on standing for something.  The vision and identity of a business depends on its core operating values.  Therefore, young people first need to learn what it really means to take responsibility for themselves.  That begins with owning our own words and practicing the habits that will, given time and maturity, eventually become a sense of integrity.  Entrepreneurs need this backbone of character in order to stay true to their vision, to honor their families and communities and customers and employees, and to avoid taking unethical, unlawful shortcuts that screw people over.
  2. Entrepreneurship is the domain of the amateur. The word amateur comes from French and means, “One who loves; lover.”  To fully invest yourself as an entrepreneur, to make all the mistakes you need to make and take all the risks you need to take and work all those insane hours doing something others don’t understand while your well-meaning relatives tell you to get a job, you have to LOVE what you’re doing.  This is the magic secret sauce of awesome—not business models or profits.  Children understand this intuitively.  They do what they love for free.  They rightly experience this as play.  But they don’t associate doing what they love with work or business.  I love watching my children lose themselves in creating art and building things.  It’s important to protect and cultivate this experience of flow; the last thing we should do is shatter their reverie by forcing them to ship product under deadline in order to maximize shareholder value.  Monetizing their curiosity and their passionate craft and introducing business concepts too early would take all the fun out of imagining, and that would be rotten and cruel.  The simple act of introducing money and monetary valuation can taint a child’s efforts.  Imagine a little girl’s face when she proudly hands you the birthday present she spent hours making for you with love and care.  How does her expression change when you pay her $9.23 for it while explaining why it’s not quite worth $10?
  3. The most immediately practical reason why children in elementary school shouldn’t launch a business is that it’s illegal. A person who launches a business must make legally binding representations.  To be held liable, or to enter into contracts, or to sign anything, a person must be 18 years of age.  (And able to write in cursive.)  Since elementary school students clearly don’t meet this requirement, they can’t own a business entity.  They can’t defend themselves, their ideas, or their management teams against aggressive investors or competitors or litigants.  They don’t understand the legal instrumentation designed to protect their IP.  I appreciate that Ms. Neumann’s children have very supportive, entrepreneurial, savvy parents.  But who will help the rest of the students navigate the Shark Tank-infested waters of the online and offline marketplaces?  I shudder to imagine school-based Richelieus advising infant king bosses, consolidating the school’s corporate holdings and conquering competitors.  What are the odds that that these advisors will throw out everything we know about self-interest and western capitalism in favor of helping these cute little budding mini-entrepreneurs be all they can be?

It’s also important to question and think critically, especially in this Internet-enabled era of marketing magic and bullshit.

I am glad to see successful people taking an interest in education and putting their money where their mouths are, and I fully support young people developing their visions and pursuing those visions with learning-fueled passion.  But there is a dangerous, illusory double-standard in creating a different sandbox to do this work.  A vision for education takes more than money.  As we are seeing all over our culture, failing at a business startup is really not that big a deal compared to failing at a human startup.  Even if we agree that young people should start businesses, we must account for the fact that those experiences– and their resulting successes and failures– are all secondary to what the children LEARN from those experiences.

I didn’t learn this in school.  I learned this during my time as a management consultant.  Business executives of a certain age may remember Peter Senge’s Learning Disability #6 from The Fifth Discipline: direct experience is a powerful teacher– and it is a delusion to think that we learn from our experience when we can’t observe the consequences of our experience.  This is also why generations of organizations who subscribe to Tuckman’s model of teambuilding added an “adjourning” stage, to provide for structured and guided reflection.  Learning is a discipline apart.  It seems reasonable to expect expertise, experience, and vision in this discipline from those we entrust to educate our children.

It is not clear how Ms. Neumann and WeWork intend to provide students with the sort of meaningful experience that lead to success later in life.  I hope they have a plan that’s at least as carefully thought out as what they pitched investors for their desk rental technology.  I’m hopeful that their students will strengthen their mental fitness, physical fitness, civic fitness, technological fitness, and spiritual fitness in ways that empower them to contribute to our society and our marketplace.

Without some shared accountability for that sort of thinking, it’s irresponsible to suggest that every seven year-old can or should launch a business.  It’s easy to use buzzwords like mindfulness, innovation and entrepreneurship to attract investment and enrollment.  It’s also easy to take advantage of smart, talented kids to entertain and fool a concerned, trusting public.

That’s not providing opportunity.  It’s stealing childhood.