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The Risk Is Worth the Reward

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When two students from Kansas City, Missouri, developed a plastic part for a ketchup bottle that would eliminate watery ketchup, media outlets throughout the world--from Popular Science to ABC News--took notice. The invention was unique, but simple - a device that separates the water from the ketchup before the condiment is pushed out of the bottle. The students printed the part on their classroom 3-D printer and tested it in a ketchup bottle, gratified to see that their designing, prototyping and commitment to the engineering design process had worked. So why all the attention? Some might say because we've all dealt with watery ketchup. This is true. But the real reason, I believe, is that these high school students didn't just lament the problem. They took it a step further and did something about it, innovating what many of us have long wish existed.

America is a nation of inventors. The U.S. continues to lead other countries when it comes to the number of patent applications filed. But what truly makes America great is our nation's entrepreneurial mindset. From Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell to more modern-day inventors such as Stephanie Kwolek, who invented the material for bullet-proof vests, and Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Square, the United States is home to an impressive number of individuals who have gone out on their own, risked a great deal, and succeeded as entrepreneurs. And while most of us won't develop the next big product or Fortune 500 company, we can play a role in continuing America's rich history of entrepreneurialism. We can help the students from Kansas City, and our own students and children, take the leap from innovators to entrepreneurs.

Some may argue that an entrepreneurial mindset is an inherent trait, one that a person is born with and cannot be taught. But I disagree. I believe we can foster an entrepreneurial mindset in our children from an early age - both at home and in the classroom - by nurturing their natural curiosity and characteristics such as risk taking, persistence and problem solving. We can create classrooms and education systems that are places where students can launch their entrepreneurial endeavors.

One of the biggest steps we must take with our children and students is giving them the freedom and confidence to take risks. Too often, we put students on a risk-averse path; we communicate that there is a correct and an incorrect way to do something, a right answer and a wrong answer to a question or problem. We reward the correct way and right answer, and discourage being wrong. We must change our thinking and behaviors. Perhaps, instead of a student's answer being wrong, it's the correct answer to a different problem. We can nurture risk taking in our children through creating safe environments, both at home and at school, where they are not afraid to be wrong or fail. Failure is an important part of learning. By creating such an environment, our children will have the freedom to think, explore or create new things. The same goes for employees within our organizations and businesses. Risk taking must be celebrated, not stifled. Not being afraid to take the risk is the mark of a true entrepreneur.

Persistence and problem solving are also traits we must nurture in our students. The Kansas City students encountered naysayers and failed prototypes along the way. They heard about other inventions for the same problem, even free solutions like simply shaking the bottle. But they weren't satisfied with those solutions. They knew there was something better. They dealt with design flaws and machinery malfunctions. But they persisted, never giving in to their failed attempts. To these students, this simply wasn't a classroom assignment; it was their opportunity to find a solution. They were confident in their idea and abilities, and benefited from the support of those around them. The result was a physical part that worked - no more watery ketchup. And now is their opportunity to take it a step further - to persist and problem solve through the commercialization process to bring their invention to market.

After creating safe and innovative classroom environments, we also owe it to our students to teach them about the patent process and how to protect their intellectual property. And we must encourage them to form teams and work with others who can help springboard their idea and invention into a workable, marketable product. Mark Zuckerberg didn't create Facebook in his college dorm room and take it from a website used by students at one university to the world's most-used social network overnight. Rather, he assembled programmers, graphic artists, investors and many others that could contribute knowledge and skills he didn't have. By assembling this team and moving Facebook beyond Harvard, he took the leap from innovator to entrepreneur. He's just one example of a successful entrepreneur; unfortunately, there are many inventors who never took the critical step to entrepreneur. Just think about how many revolutionary inventions are sitting on notepads, hard drives and lab benches collecting dust. I'd imagine quite a few.

Each of us can take an active role in fostering the American entrepreneurial spirit. Parents, teachers and educators have the opportunity to nurture the next generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs by reinforcing creative thinking and problem solving and creating safe environments where students feel comfortable taking risks. Within our cities and communities, we can work to establish business incubators and business-friendly policies that encourage that leap from innovator to entrepreneur. And as leaders of organizations and businesses, we can encourage the entrepreneurial mindset within our current workforce, rewarding employees for ideas that improve upon products, processes and services. We need employees on our teams who possess the skills and qualities of an entrepreneur, but these skills and qualities must be nurtured from an early age. We must all take an active role in inspiring our students to think, create, build, fail and persist until they succeed. The risk is worth the reward.

Vince Bertram is president and CEO of Project Lead The Way, the nation's leading provider of STEM education programs for students in elementary, middle, and high school. Through world-class curriculum, high-quality teacher professional development, and a network of business and educational leaders, PLTW is preparing students for the global economy.