Giving learners the business

Is promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in education a good thing? 

Encouraging young people to develop and share their ideas seems like a good starting point for learning communities. 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.  That is real entrepreneurship.  



My good friend and hero Jesse teaches collaborative special education programs for California high school students. Together they do things like build hi-tech gardens that monitor soil chemistry for optimal growth and run bike repair shops that keep P.E. departments running (cycling). They use Kanban boards and online tools to manage their work flows.

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.

I consider Jesse an entrepreneur, so I was surprised when he called me a few years back to express concern about promoting entrepreneurship in school. “Hey,” he said, “I don’t get the big push here. Is this like what you described in your TED talk or just hype?”

Jesse was specifically concerned about entrepreneurs influencing students. Around that time, the desk-renting company WeWork — which attracted a $760M round of investment and was valued at $20B before failing so spectacularly that it became Netflix documentary fodder — announced its intent to open a school and make its mark on 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.”


In entrepreneurship, 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. People didn’t understand Jobs and Atari’s CEO famously kicked his stinky ass out of a meeting. But when his “Reality Distortion Field” spurred Apple employees to ship insanely great products and change the world, 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 about the lines we cross, especially in this Internet-enabled era of marketing magic and bullshit.


I am not an expert in business valuation. WeWork was reported to be the fifth-most valuable technology startup in the world. I saw the headline and I was impressed. The company was valued in the billions. That’s a lot.

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

When it came to schooling the connections were even more tenuous. What did the company’s initial success in commercial real estate have to do with helping young people learn?


I’ve always been a big fan of entrepreneurship and I love creating out-of-the-box opportunities with students. So I didn’t reject Ms. Neumann’s comment to Bloomberg without first considering it. But the idea simply doesn’t hold water.  Apart from Neumann’s questionable use of the invariant be, there are many very good reasons that children in elementary school can’t – and shouldn’t – launch their own businesses.  Here are three:

  • Real entrepreneurship is the process of creating wonderful ideas and taking responsibility for them by putting them out into the world.

There is certainly value in approaching the world with a child’s mind and asking “Why not?” There is also value in preserving our childhood time to build, learn, play, make fart noises, stare into space, and master the basic art 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 backbone and character 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.

  • 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 children don’t associate doing what they love with work or business.

When they were young, I loved 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?

  • 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 enter into contracts and assume liability, a person must be 18 years of age. Since elementary school students can’t meet this requirement, or even sign their own names in cursive, they can’t legally own (i.e., take responsibility for) 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 own children may have had very supportive, entrepreneurial, savvy (if not particularly ethical) parents.  But who will help the rest of the students navigate the Shark Tank-infested waters of the online and offline marketplaces?  Imagine school-based Richelieus advising infant king bosses, consolidating the school’s corporate holdings and conquering competitors.

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


I want to see successful people taking an interest in education and putting their money where their mouths are. 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 thinking we don’t need experts in learning, or that a successful business person can automatically be a successful educator.

Even if we agree that a young person should start a business, the experience itself is secondary to what the child LEARNS from the experience.

I didn’t learn this in education. I learned it in business, as a management consultant.  Organizational thinkers of a certain age may remember Peter Senge’s Learning Disability #6 from The Fifth Discipline: Direct experience is a powerful teacher.

It is delusional to think that we learn from our experience alone. We need structured reflection. Adherents of Tuckman’s model of teambuilding added an “adjourning” stage for the purpose.  Learning is a discipline apart from whatever else we do.


It was never clear how Ms. Neumann and WeWork intended to provide students with the sort of meaningful experience that lead to success later in life. How would their students strengthen their mental fitness, physical fitness, civic fitness, technological fitness, and spiritual fitness? How would their learning empower them to contribute to our society and our marketplace?

It’s irresponsible to suggest that a seven year-old can or should launch a business.

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