The reading level for this article is Novice
July 14, 2003
I’ve been back in Chapel Hill for two weeks now. I came back June 29 from having the time of my life in Chicago. There, I was teaching high school students about entrepreneurship at a ten day conference held at Lake Forest College, about 45 minutes north of the city.
My journey had begun eighteen days earlier in Washington D.C. I had arrived at BWI and was met by a staff member of Lead America, the organization that runs the Congressional Student Leadership Conference that I was a Team Leader (TL) for. I was introduced to a few other TLs and then taken by charter bus back to our hotel in Silver Springs, Maryland, about a thirty minute subway ride from city center D.C.
At the hotel, I picked up my manual and my room key and went up to the third floor to meet my roommates Brad and Athas. Both Brad and Athas were TLs for the business and entrepreneurship conference. Brad must have had arms the size of my legs and a kilt to match his Kilpatrick Scottish heritage. Athas must have talked faster than anyone I ever knew, yet turned out to be an experienced and effective head team leader.
The next morning at 7:45 we met for breakfast and then began training at 8. Over the next five days we went through leadership exercises, inch thick rule and procedure books, and the business curriculum. As this was the first business conference Lead America had done, our experienced group of Team Leaders (four Boston University School of Management seniors, one Babson junior, and myself) was able to help put the final touches on the graduate-level, unique two-hundred page curricula we had for the students.
After five days of training in Washington D.C. we headed off to Chicago. We arrived at Lake Forest College (LFC) and began setup immediately. As college dorms go, we had an immaculate resort as our facility. We arranged and hooked up the office, set up the registration process, finalized the curriculum, put sheets and pillows in the rooms, organized our classrooms, loaded our leadership bins, made a MP3 playlist for pre-event music, and visited every one of the field trip sites. We made sure every detail was perfect, down to creating very authentic-looking fake ‘Emergency Exit Only: Alarm Will Sound’ signs for the unmanned doors.
And So It Began
And so it began. After four hours of sleep we rose and headed for the second largest airport in the world, good old O’hare, to find eighty fourteen to eighteen year olds and bring them back to LFC. We made it through that long day without a single one lost, thanks to the help of thirteen Nextel walkie-talkies and the coordination of TL Steve Towler.
That evening I was the MC for the Opening Session and gave a pep-talk to get the students excited about what as to come. The following morning, after working until 3am, I gave a 45 minute speech to the students in the McCormick Conference Hall. It was the first speech of such length that I had ever given and it was a tremendous experience. I received some great feedback on the speech and my style and in the heat of the deadline created material for a good speech entitled, ‘Opportunity Recognition and Evaluation’ that I will surely be able to use many times again. This was a big accomplishment for me as, just one year ago, I would have been nervous and shaking throughout the full lecture. Through my first semester communications class, the Carolina Entrepreneurship Club, and this I had overcome the nervous-when-speaking-in-public syndrome that affects so many.
The next nine days passed like they were two. After Leadership Immersion Day we headed into the Simulation. Each TL group broke into two teams of seven and each team came up with an opportunity and then a business plan for that opportunity. The field trips included the Sears Towers, Ravinia Park, Navy Pier, the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, a beach party on Lake Michigan, and the Museum of Science and Industry.
The conference also featured some amazing speakers including George Foreman Grill maker David Sabin from Salton Industries (did you know they paid Foreman $137.5 million to use his name?) and the Bahamian Ambassador Gilbert Morris, among many others.
To end the conference, each team presented their idea to all of the students and then, based on peer-evaluations, the top three presented to venture capitalists and received some very useful feedback. Although my two teams, at least in my opinion, both deserved to be in the top three, it seemed that the simpler business concepts with the likable personalities got the student vote. My teams’ businesses were both technology-based had bit more complex models. One wanted to connect every home with ‘smart’ appliances that could be controlled from a central console over a wireless network. The other wanted to build a school network that would increase efficiency in education and improve parent, teacher, and student communication by putting textbooks, tests, grades, attendance and scheduling online in a web-based portal. Perhaps this result can relate to real life as often the idea that can be explained fully in thirty seconds will be easier to raise funding for than the idea that is just as good but takes ten minutes to relate.
What I Learned
Only by teaching does one really learn the material. Through teaching entrepreneurship I added quite a bit to my knowledge about entrepreneurship and business. I learned about Porter’s Five Forces, additional types of alternative financing, new distribution models, the marketing wheel, and a new type of break-even analysis. Just as important, however, was my learning about people and leadership. I learned how to relate and connect to younger teenagers. I learned how to handle a position of authority. I learned how to write a forty-five minute speech in two hours. I learned teaching styles. I learned that if you know what you are talking about and can gain someone’s trust, he or she will follow you. I learned how to inspire and motivate. I learned how to understand motives and read the body language and tone of a person. I learned how to build rapport and relationships. And I learned how to go ten days with forty hours of sleep.
It was fun. It was an entrepreneurial experience. I had the time of my life teaching those kids and seeing them take an idea and build it into a full business plan in eight days. It was uplifting knowing that maybe what I did or what I said just might make a difference in a few lives. Maybe I’ll hear from Jonathan Dermer or Brandon Washington or Ashley Marchetta or Kris Paascila in a few years with news of a promotion or that they’ve launched their flagship product or that they’ll be taking their companies through an Initial Public Offering next week. Maybe I won’t. It will be worth it regardless. The relationships I built, the people I met, the hard and soft skills I learned, the opportunities I had&ldots;it was three of the best weeks of my life. I’m off to Boston Thursday to do the same thing for ten more days. I cannot wait!
Note: I would wholeheartedly recommend going to a CSLC conference to any high school student and absolutely encourage any college student to apply. For more information on the Lead America programs, you can visit http://www.lead-america.org.