Authored by Katlyn Smith on Daily Herald
Jae Haas gave students some reassuring advice before they stepped into a new business incubator at Wheaton North High School.
In this renovated classroom with quotes from Steve Jobs printed on the walls, teenagers are treated as entrepreneurs and innovators who will develop their ideas for new products into polished business plans. And, along the way, they are allowed to fail and adjust what isn’t working, Haas told them.
“The program isn’t really about how good the idea is or isn’t,” Haas said. “It’s about the execution of the idea.”
Haas, president of a Rosemont-based payment processing company, helped launch the INCubatoredu program in Wheaton North and Wheaton Warrenville South high schools. The curriculum was pioneered in Barrington High School four years ago, and it’s growing in popularity among suburban educators.
Students at Glenbard East High School in Lombard began taking the course this semester. York High School in Elmhurst also is planning to create a business incubator.
Here’s how it works: Corporate professionals and business owners lend their financial backing and expertise as volunteer mentors and coaches for students. The class culminates with teams of high schoolers pitching their business plans before a group of investors.
That pitch night panel may spare teens from the harsh criticism of ABC’s “Shark Tank,” but the stakes are just as high: Students could stand to receive funding to get their startups off the ground.
“Our kids are capable of that,” Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 Superintendent Jeff Schuler said. “They’re really capable of thinking about the world around them and (answering) ‘how do we make conditions better or solve problems?’ And, yet, they do that in a way that actually creates new career opportunities, new job opportunities. I think that is the perfect intersection of learning and life.”
As more schools start business incubators, Glenbard East Principal Shahe Bagdasarian hopes to see a regional pitch contest where students from across DuPage County could compete for seed funding through major corporate sponsorships.
“It promotes collaboration,” Bagdasarian said of the INCubatoredu program. “It’s less structured, but it’s put together in a way that students can work effectively together.”
East became the first campus in Glenbard High School District 87 to offer the class this fall with the support of a $15,000 grant from the Coleman Foundation. About 60 juniors and seniors are enrolled in two sections of the course that Bagdasarian says will encourage them to take risks and bounce back from failure.
“Many people have ideas, and then it stops right there,” said Bagdasarian, whose brother is an entrepreneur. “They get overwhelmed because they think they have to do X, Y and Z. Just start the process. And this is a course that will help our kids begin that process. And who knows what they can come up with?”
Students will come up with their ideas in a classroom with six work stations — each with a TV monitor that connects to their tablets. Mounted on the wall of an adjoining conference room is another large screen that can display video chats with mentors.
“We wanted to make it an environment where students can collaborate, work together, really bring out their creativity,” Bagdasarian said. “And this classroom really does that.”
It’s a similar setup in the Wheaton North classroom, where comfy seating, monitors and high tables recreate a real-world workplace.
“You’re going to have experience that’s going to put you a step ahead,” Haas told students during a recent unveiling of the space.
Haas and his business partner at Transnational Payments have volunteered for the incubator at Fremd High School in Palatine. Haas was so impressed by the program that he and Robb Christenson, another parent in District 200, met with Schuler last summer about building an incubator.
“It really takes the ability to pull together, I think, a whole community system to make this opportunity available,” Schuler said.
Haas helped assemble a board of nine advisers with careers in finance, IT, entrepreneurship and other fields. Board members will pick the winners of the pitch night competition. Some of the advisers also will serve as coaches, visiting the classroom to teach specific lessons related to their careers.
Mentors, by contrast, will meet with teams of students weekly, guiding them throughout the course.
But the sky’s the limit in terms of what students can create. Haas highlighted a team from Dundee-Crown High School that won the 2016 INCubatoredu National Pitch Night Competition in Chicago. The team’s pitch to turn biodegradable food waste from restaurants into organic fertilizer was “spot on,” Haas said.
“That’s the beauty of this,” Haas said. “These kids are much more creative. They’re not cynical like we are as adults, and they are going to have some really cool ideas.”