Aside from founding multi-billion dollar Internet companies, what do Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman share in common? They both attended boarding school. This week in Boston, The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) meets for its annual conference, and this year's "Leadership Forum" will discuss how schools can better foster entrepreneurship.
As a boarding school alum and entrepreneur, I'm speaking on this year's Forum. In preparation, I've contacted an array of entrepreneurs, investors, and educators who have consistently identified a key element: guidance. And while boarding schools offer a unique experience, often with comparatively vast resources, offering better guidance is a way in which all high schools (not just boarding schools) can better support young entrepreneurs.
But first, let's acknowledge the state of affairs and address why we should make helping young entrepreneurs a priority.
Given the rise in Internet-related commerce, perhaps never before has the high school-aged human been so valuable to the work force and subsequently had so much opportunity. Today's high school students grew up with both Internet and mobile technology. Because of their often self-taught ability to write computer code, many of them already have the ability to create products that could benefit people all over the world. For example, 17-year old Nick D'Aloisio made headlines this year when he sold his news application, Summly, to Yahoo for $30 million.
Recognizing this talent pool one of world's most prolific investors, Peter Thiel, is actively luring talent away from colleges to become Thiel Fellows. Thiel, the first professional investor to back Facebook, offers individuals $100,000 to skip college and instead "bring their most ambitious ideas and projects to life." Why? Because star talent is rare, so it makes sense to put their apt minds on a good course as early as possible and nurture them along in ways that colleges cannot.
While there are only 20 Thiel Fellows selected each year, there may be dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of high schoolers whose entrepreneurial pursuits could benefit society. But again the key to helping these students is not capital, it's guidance. On a local level and without their needing to forego college, here's what we can do collectively to help them.
To guide its young entrepreneurs, every high school should establish an "Alumni Entrepreneurship Council (AEC)." The Council should exist to render advice, consultation, and inspiration. It should aim to saturate students with knowledge (books, articles, seminars) and support (suggestions, introductions, pro bono services).
• The AEC should be comprised of alumni who have either started companies or work in complimentary industries and possess pertinent expertise (lawyers, accountants, etc). The Council does not need to be large, but needs to be committed and needs to communicate effectively. Parents of students should also be considered as Council members when appropriate.
• The AEC should assign an alumni liaison to preside over the Council and to also act as the intermediary for the high school student body. At least one high school faculty representative should also be included so that the school is apprised of all activity.
• Once established, the AEC should be announced to the student body, and there should be a basic introductory event so that students may have face-to-face interaction with members of the Council. There should be at least one in-person event held each semester. The rest of the year, the group can connect and communicate through a LinkedIn group.
The concept of an AEC probably seems simple because it is. But it's astonishing how few of these groups exist, leaving young entrepreneurs on their own.
Fortunately, this is beginning to change, with some high schools even fully integrating the study of entrepreneurship as is now commonplace in many colleges. Especially with the Internet's influence, entrepreneurs will begin their pursuits earlier and earlier in life. As their guides, we must do all we can to help them succeed.