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Long before entrepreneur Elon Musk’s name became synonymous with SpaceX and Tesla, he was a kid who loved computers. At age 12, he sold the code for a video game he created to a computer magazine for $500 — starting his journey to becoming the world’s richest person.
Such phenomenal success probably doesn’t await every child entrepreneur, but there is an outlet in Pittsburgh — called Startable — that can help kids with a knack for invention to turn an idea into a business.
“We want them constantly looking at different things and thinking, ‘What can I make out of that?’ Or, ‘Here’s a problem; how do I fix that?’” says Shelly Brown, manager of Startable, the youth arm of Innovation Works.
“Every kid has that potential. I think that’s a part of the program, to get them to look and see things through a different lens … and teach them the tools that can take them through that process.”
Through cohorts offered by the Homewood YMCA, the Reach Cyber Charter School, and the Environmental Charter School in Regent Square, youths ages 13 to 19 can try their hand at becoming an entrepreneur. Teens in nine Southwestern Pennsylvania counties — Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Fayette, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland — can apply.
Over eight weeks this summer, they’ll build a business and keep any profits they earn. They’ll consult with instructors to learn business strategies, do mockup designs of products and commercialize them, and ultimately, pitch for prize money to be awarded an Aug. 17 competition. The winners will receive up to $1,000 each for best pitch, design, marketing or business plan.
Brown anticipates around 50 kids will take part in this year’s program; they can sign up through June 27.
Since Covid, the program has been conducted largely via Zoom, but the 2022 program will be a hybrid model, with some cohorts fully virtual and others meeting in person. All the kids will have a chance to go on exploratory field trips once a week. They will have opportunities to brainstorm with one another, and to share ideas individually with mentors.
When they begin the program, students get a kit that includes basic items such as scissors, graph paper and flash drives, to help them function as budding designers, Brown says. Throughout the course, they’ll learn photography, branding, engineering, 2D and 3D modeling, as well as pitching, marketing and sales. They’ll also gain soft skills such as making introductions, interviewing, networking etiquette, and time management.
The lessons, Brown says, are like those Innovation Works teaches adults: How do you take your idea to a workable product? Who’s your audience? What are the pros and cons of the product? Are there accessibility concerns? Some of the subject matter experts who will talk with the teens have gone through Startable, Brown says.
“The beautiful thing about it, which probably separates us from other youth programs, is that we have real companies that are in that startup concept, whether they’re brand new or they’re prepared to leave Innovation Works because they’ve grown and gone on,” she says. “We have a connection to those folks, so the kids can see the growth of a company.”
Startable is free to participants, and they can go through it more than once, if they want.
“You can come back — we love that,” says Brown. “Even when they get to college level, they can come back through our internship program. Once we connect, we want to stay connected to these young people with great ideas.”
Corporate sponsors mostly fund Startable, including the money set aside for prizes, says Terri Glueck, vice president of community development and communications for Innovation Works. Sponsorships for this summer are still being finalized, but even if they fall short for some reason, Innovation Works will find a way to keep the 8-year-old program going, she says.
“It’s become a commitment of ours. We’ve decided it’s an important program that we will fund,” Glueck says. “You have to make it attractive for [students] over a summer job, so not only do we not want to charge to participate, but there are a lot of things competing for these young people’s attention and we want Startable to be one of those things. It’s professionally run. … Every year it has grown, included more kids, and we’ve added to the programming.
“These young people are so infectious — their enthusiasm and vision are very inspiring, so our entire team is more than willing to help.”