Ten years ago I decided to leave the classroom to find a way to support young people in using their voice to make a difference. That goal evolved into a unique program for high school teens: the only 6 unit college credit social entrepreneur and leadership program in the country. Over the years I have witnessed firsthand what works and doesn’t work in supporting a young person on their entrepreneurial journey. Now, before I share what I’ve learned, it’s important to acknowledge that not every teen is meant to be an entrepreneur. I do, however, think every teen should have the opportunity to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. That mindset will help them become self-sustaining and contributing members of society … so here it goes:
1. Don’t Jump In Before The Win
Failure is a part of entrepreneurship and quite frankly a part of life. When we (adults) step in before the lesson can be learned or the failure experienced, we deprive a teen of the opportunity to build resilience and develop grit. We all know that resilience does not develop when the waters are smooth; it evolves when things are rough and not going our way. We learn to persevere. One time I alerted a parent that their teen was not on track to execute a planned event. The teen was no longer interested in following through and had become apathetic. I shared with the mom that I wasn’t going to swoop in and fix the event for her, and I encouraged her mom not to interfere. I felt there could be an opportunity for the teen to learn about deadlines and follow through. The mom’s response, “I already told my friends about this, so we are going to do this. I will coordinate everything.” So the mom took over the teen’s project and executed it. The teen went to the event, snapped some pictures, and learned that if she doesn’t do her work, her mom will do it for her.
2. Step Back
If we want to raise independent adults, we need to give them time to cultivate and navigate independence during their youth. This is true for all teens, not just teen entrepreneurs. Zoe P. a teen entrepreneur from New York City, and co-founder of Proud To Care, shared, “I think a really important way to support us is to understand when to help us and when to take a step back and let us make decisions. We value feedback of course, but I feel like a part of entrepreneurship is understanding how to make decisions on your own and taking risks. If you mess up, that’s fine because it’s a learning experience. But sometimes support can come in the form of trusting us and encouraging us to be independent rather than physically giving us advice.”
3. Words Matter
Equally important is the tone of the words. As teen entrepreneur Avyu A., founder of Stem for All, from Austin, Texas pointed out, “We don’t need constant help, but being open to us and supporting us is always going to be beneficial especially when we make mistakes.” Every teen makes mistakes, and teen entrepreneurs probably make even more! They are learning so much through the “doing” as schools rarely teach business skills. In our organization, we anticipate there will be failures and mistakes, which provide valuable learning experiences. We teach our Facilitators to remind our teens, “failure is feedback”. No teens are failures in our programs: there are businesses that failed or ideas that failed. All that failure can be used for feedback and learning. Instead of talking about the failure, perhaps ask, “Can you share with me what feedback you got from that experience?”
Also, try and remember that when you were a teen you didn’t need adults pointing out your flaws or dwelling on your mistakes. You were already doing that to yourself! What we all really wanted was an adult who sincerely encouraged us to keep going, reminding us that mistakes are normal and failure happens. It is part of the journey, especially the journey of the young entrepreneur.