Alyson and Meghan Gale, identical twins, went on summer camp last year, at the age of 17. The traditional camp activities – campfires, kayaking and hiking – were not for them. Instead they took field trips to the Tesla Motors factory and Google offices. When the twins were back on base, they made vision boards and devised business plans. For this was no ordinary summer camp but Camp Start-up, based in Silicon Valley, catering to teen proto-entrepreneurs.
The pair so enjoyed their time at Camp Start-up that this year they decided to become counsellors at the camp – held this summer in Oxford university.
“Being taught business by people who were actually making a living using the information they were teaching us put everything in a much more realistic perspective,” says Meghan. “Business didn’t seem so distant to real life any more.”
Camp Start-up is one of a number of courses offering teenagers – and in some cases even younger – the opportunity to learn about profit and loss, corporate social responsibility and leadership.
Neither girl had shown the slightest interest in business before their camp experiences. They knew that having it on their CV would help them stand out from their peers when applying for university. But also, their parents, both former Apple employees, believed that the pair should be exposed to business plans and founders, if not to coax them into an entrepreneurial life, at least to help them make informed career decisions. Moreover, their parents were keen to take the teenagers out of their comfort zone.
Joline Godfrey is the chief executive and founder of Independent Means, which provides financial education for children and families, and the founder of Camp Start-up, which charges 14-18 year-olds up to £2,500 for the 10-day residential course. She believes the modern world requires financially literate children, who are also self-reliant and entrepreneurial.
“I feel economic self-defence is what these kids need. We are arming them and keeping them safe in a commercial world.” Everyone has to be business-savvy, according to Ms Godfrey. “It’s not just for the financial nerd but for anybody who wants to be self-sustaining. It’s good for kids who want to be a poet.”
It is a view shared by Michael and Peggy Gibbs, whose Camp BizSmart courses are based in Silicon Valley and cater to 11-15 year olds. Ms Gibbs, a former executive at non-profit organisations, says the goal is not necessarily to turn the children into entrepreneurs but to give them “the skillset to deal with uncertainty. Everyone needs these skills to support themselves.” She cites her son-in-law, a musician who also knows how to sell. Her husband, Dr Gibbs, an industrial psychologist, points out that “being a good musician is only the price of entry today”.
The training the children receive at BizSmart camps is not that different from the executive courses Dr Gibbs used to deliver at General Electric. They use a problem-based approach that they call LDCA (“Learn, Do, Check, Act”) based on the advice issued by W Edwards Deming, the management expert. Children grapple with real company problems, such as how to expand a product line, build a prototype and devise a funding model. They work in teams and students are assigned positions, such as chief financial officer or project manager, to understand different roles and skills. “Kids want real-world skills,” says Dr Gibbs. During the sessions, he says, a light switches on in their heads when they realise the point of geometry and calculus.
While about 40 per cent of their applicants tend to be female, they make up 60 per cent of the “chief executive” roles assigned by their peers. “At this age, the girls are more mature,” observes Dr Gibbs.
Are they worried they are placing too much pressure on teenagers? Dr Gibbs concedes that he does worry. “Their lives are busy with dance and music lessons.” He is also concerned by aspirational parents burdening their children with entrepreneurial training. So they try to weed out those being pressured by their parents into attending a summer camp from those that are fired by something they dub the “zog” factor – which stands for “zest, optimism and grit”.
There is a problem, the pair say, with the education system which can be too esoteric and academic for many children. The UK government – keen to emphasise real-life skills – is rolling out personal finance education as part of the core school curriculum. The Gibbs plan to go one step further – they hope to start a private high school that teaches entrepreneurial skills. “We see a lot of kids who shouldn’t go to college. College isn’t for everybody. We make a big mistake pushing them into university,” says Dr Gibbs.
Surely university is an opportunity for young adults to learn and gain experiences before they hit the workplace?
“If it’s not something that creates value a degree can be a very expensive way to have fun,” says Ms Gibbs.
This view is shared by David Fagan, owner of Icon Builder Media, a marketing company based in Beverly Hills, who this summer ran a week-long entrepreneur camp charging about $3,000 per teenager. “School is a big waste of time for many kids. They need to learn what they are good at and what people would pay for.” Mr Fagan, who did not graduate from high school and has eight children of his own, believes many parents would be advised to invest in their child’s business idea rather than their education. “Parents are spending $100,000 on college and kids don’t want to go. They’re just partying and wasting time.”
The benefit of teaching business to teenagers, says Ms Gibbs, is their creativity and openness to new ideas. “They have ideas popping out of their heads. They don’t have self-restraint. It’s good, they push the boundaries.”
Mr Fagan cites one business idea dreamt up by a teenager attending his camp, who works part-time as a valet. The teenager saw that the field was dominated by men so is setting up a valet company staffed exclusively by beautiful women. “I think it’s a great idea,” says Mr Fagan.
Meanwhile, at Camp Start-up, the ideas spanned from ecommerce apps to a co-op for Canadian farmers.
At the very least, the courses can provide a good insight for children into their parents’ professional lives, notes Dr Gibbs. “When a student learns what a CFO or a CEO does, they might say ‘Oh, this is what my mum or dad does’,” he says. “It starts a conversation. They can talk about what it’s like to have diverse teams or how to collaborate.” Although it may also occasionally prompt clashes, he adds. “Some parents complain that now ‘we have two CEOs in the house’.”
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