Think that the younger generation is drowning in video games and smartphones, social media’d to the point where they can’t form a coherent sentence and think about the future? Hopefully not, but a surprising number of adults view the younger generation as being immobilized by ennui and without any interest in their future. In my experience with both 20-something folk and teens, this is entirely false, though it’s fair to say that this generation faces unique challenges that weren’t either existential threats or particular obstacles when I was going through the early years of my own career.
That’s why when I heard that Generations School Network and Ogallala Commons were sponsoring a Youth Entrepreneurship Fair for 6th thru 12th graders at a rural Colorado high school, I was eager to get involved. Outside of the hustle and bustle of urban life, how do our young citizens think about the state of the world and what are they envisioning as part of their future enterprise? I was invited to join the judging panel for the event, which was held at Wiggins High School in Wiggins, Colorado (population 1,509) on May 4, 2023.
It’s about a 75 minute drive from my home in Boulder, Colorado, along lots of rural prairie highways, including spots where I couldn’t see any buildings at all, just rolling fields and morning clouds. It never fails to amaze me that I can drive for just a few minutes here in Colorado and be in a completely rural environment, with farms, tractors, herds of cattle, and cowboys wearing big Stetson hats and dusty boots.
Rural America isn’t quite the thriving economic powerhouse it was a century ago, however, so these country drives also tend to reveal memorials to dreams hatched and failed too…
The road through Wiggins was a stark reminder that small rural cities have seen better days. Indeed, the road up to the high school itself was paved, but all the sideroads were just rolled dirt, not even busy enough to justify the expense of asphalt. The high school itself, however, originally built in 1948, had been recently razed and rebuilt in 2019, and was beautiful, a very modern school facility that serves 200 students, about 30% of whom are Hispanic.
I walked into the gymnasium to see the students still setting up their displays:
The event drew in student entrepreneurs from around the community, representing both middle schools and high schools within a few dozen miles. It was sponsored by Generations School Network and Ogallala Commons, both non-profits that seek to reinvigorate rural schools and bring more entrepreneurship to the communities.
The event was broken into two phases: a general entrepreneurship fair where we judges walked from table to table, being pitched by the young entrepreneurs. We had a form to fill out after each pitch, rating their business idea, presentation skills, table layout, ability to answer questions clearly, etc. Phase two, later in the morning, was their version of Shark Tank, where the top five high school and middle school businesses presented to a panel of judges, with us then voting to determine the winners.
Here are some of the dozens of businesses presented. You can zoom in to read their signage:
Note: for reasons of privacy I have opted to share the tables of the various groups but not pictures of the young entrepreneurs themselves.
Not all the businesses were serious (see “Reverse Microwave”, below) but the entrepreneurs were all enthusiastic about the event and their own entrepreneurial ideas, even if some of them were more business savvy than others.
I evaluated about twenty businesses, both high school and middle school, and was darn impressed by the entrepreneurial fervor that I encountered. There were kids in 7th and 8th grade who not only were talking about business but had actually launched their businesses and were making a profit selling products at local craft fairs and through sites like Etsy. The older kids, with the mobility of a driver’s license, were even more likely to have viable businesses and a distinct path to the future.
For the Shark Tank portion, I was assigned to the high school groups and our winner’s fund was $3,000 cash, which we were allowed to dole out as we felt best. We were five judges with varying backgrounds, and we had the five finalists each pitch us individually, then answer our rather pointed and direct questions. They all fielded them quite gracefully and with aplomb and a sense of humor.
It was darn hard to pick which was our favorite, so one of the dimensions we added to our evaluation process was to consider which businesses would gain the most from winning a portion of the prize pool.
We ended up with a tie for the HS winner so awarded two businesses $1,000 each, agreed on our third place winner ($500), and then split the remainder between the two remaining businesses ($250) in recognition of their achievement and enthusiasm. The winning companies were a couple of young men who were launching a mobile power washing company and a couple of young women who were already selling their custom-formulated air fresheners.
All in all, it was a great event, very fun and engaging, and across the perhaps 75 students I interacted with, everyone was enthusiastic and engaged. Congrats to the organizers, but mostly, big congrats to the students who are clearly enthused about their road into the future.