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05/21/2013 04:51 pm ET | Updated Jul 21, 2013

Developing an Appetite for Risk

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When 9th grade student Yusef Mirza first heard that his teacher wanted him to swap a paper clip for something to sell at an auction, he wasn't sure how he would benefit from the project. A week later and in the possession of an antique Moroccan chess set, Yusef shared that he now felt he had the skills and confidence to swap "literally anything" for something better.

Earlier this spring, students at GEMS Wellington Academy, Dubai Silicon Oasis, were given a challenge based on the work of Kyle Macdonald -- who was made famous for a swapping ability that ultimately saw him trade a red paper clip for a house. Despite a lack of red paper clips, students in grades 4-9 (age 9-15) were all given a single standard paper clip, an inspiring story and "a whole lot of encouragement," to engage in a series of swaps leading to ultimately obtaining an item to be sold at an auction for charity. The organizing teacher, Alex Harrison, believed that this would be an excellent way to increase an interest in enterprise activities across the curriculum and inspire entrepreneurial thinking across the school.

While Alex hoped that the business studies students he worked with would employ negotiation strategies they had learned, he simply wanted the rest of the school to be excited by the process and to see their own capacity to add value to a simple household item. What Alex did not expect was how much the students would learn about the value of taking risks.

Schools around the globe are beginning to look critically at the role of entrepreneurship in their curriculum. Many now offer elective -- and some even require -- entrepreneurship classes, which typically teach financial literacy, introduce students to regional entrepreneurs, and provide a range of experiences for students to simulate or to set up a short-term small business. The best ones incorporate innovation strategies, the teaching of hard skills, and provision an incubator-like set-up, for students to launch actual, viable businesses. Along the way, students are exposed to the notion that risk-taking is good. The business studies students at GEMS Wellington Academy and other entrepreneurially minded youngsters across GEMS schools, speak confidently about the importance of risk taking and failure. They've heard successful entrepreneur after successful entrepreneur discuss the risks they have taken and the lessons they have learned from their own personal failures and can repeat this back with confidence. What they will do with this belief in the value of risk-taking and what will happen to their confidence when they first fail remains to be seen. In order develop truly resilient entrepreneurs, it is the role of entrepreneurship programs to teach our youth to not only embrace the idea of failure but to prepare for and manage it when it happens.

Through his paper clip challenge, Alex provided an opportunity for students to engage in risk-taking activity, one in which even trading up for a pencil was considered a success and would not happen without individually put oneself "out there." As the potential rewards grew, so too did the lessons learned about taking risks and the potential to fail. The students who made the most lucrative swaps cited their nervousness and excitement as they worked up the courage to pitch the value of the item they were swapping. Those with strong swaps also heard "no" more often than others and needed to pick themselves back up and consider alternative swaps, communities to reach out to, and ways to sell their item. As one fourth grade student shared, "I was quite lucky that I was able to get some good things out of the swaps, but my last swap was by far the best. I enjoying being risky with it and got a good watch."

As Alex shared, "Although the students were only given a week, a technique used to inspire a short sharp burst of enthusiasm, the students brought back some mind blowingly unique objects including an antique Moroccan Chess Set, a watch and a goldfish! The whole task was designed to encourage an entrepreneurial attitude in students and to allow them room to take elements of risk too. The whole 'take something from nothing' approach to the task was something that all students embraced even if it did mean they only took a pencil as a swap and will hopefully set students up for a greater risk taking appetite in the future."

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