Taking Innovations to New Heights in Frisco

Technological advancements and increased globalization are rapidly changing the workplace, job market and the skillsets students will need to succeed after graduation. As automation becomes more prevalent, it is difficult to predict which skills and lessons will be obsolete by the time students enter the workforce, and employers are seeking out individuals with soft skills that cannot easily be automated, such as creativity and collaboration. Educational institutions are shifting their efforts toward offering a curriculum that keeps students engaged by teaching relevant, practical knowledge that bridges the gap between school and the real-world working environment. Four Frisco ISD high schools have started offering a unique business incubator course that teaches students how to develop their own business from the ground up and enables the students to pitch the idea to real investors. “The INCubatoredu program is a program that gives students a real, authentic experience as entrepreneurs. They not only learn about entrepreneurship and what it entails, but they actually get to become entrepreneurs and create their own businesses,” says Jacqueline Hollowell, the INCubatoredu teacher at Heritage High School.

It is often difficult to keep students interested in learning a subject when they are unable to derive purpose they can apply to the real world. This purpose-driven experiential learning program encourages students to connect their academic experience to potential future career paths while providing an exciting opportunity to receive funding for their idea. The classes use material and methods from the INCubatoredu and ACCELeratoredu curriculum, both of which are nationwide educational suites developed by Uncharted Learning™. The year-long courses are currently offered to grades 10 through 12 at Centennial, Frisco, Heritage and Lone Star, and supplement an entrepreneurship course that is offered at all FISD high schools. There are no minimum GPA requirements to enroll; students are chosen based on their level of drive, ambition, autonomy and team-oriented mindset. “Entrepreneurship is not just a course, it is a way of thinking, and those are the skills that we want our students to have. We want them to be resourceful, to think outside the box, to have real-world applications in what they’re learning,” says Hollowell.

Each student completes an entrepreneurial DNA quiz to determine whether they can best be described as a Builder, Opportunist, Specialist or Innovator. The teacher assigns students to teams to ensure that each team contains at least one of each DNA type as the student’s primary or secondary characteristic and also to simulate real-world settings since a person cannot choose their coworkers. Throughout the year, the teams learn how to develop and test hypotheses about business concepts, write a complete business plan, including financial projections, future communications and funding plans and competitive market analysis. The final pitch presentation includes teams from all four campuses and is open to the public. Seed money for any viable companies are usually provided by the Frisco Education Foundation, a fund restricted to the incubator program and supported by community donations. The overall experience fosters the development of timeless skills, such as collaboration, creative problem solving, public speaking, adapting to change, critical thinking and how to effectively recover from failure and reflect on how it could have been avoided.

Several volunteers from the local business community collaborate with the teacher and meet with students throughout the year to provide feedback, strategic guidance and mentorship as they develop their concept. Volunteer “coaches” teach students about their general areas of business expertise, such as marketing, sales or finance. Lecture material is provided to the coaches, who have the option of supplementing the material by sharing their own real-life experiences. Board of Advisor volunteers (“sharks”) meet with students twice a year during their pitches and provide feedback and strategic guidance to the teams, similar to the format on the critically acclaimed ABC show, Shark Tank. Mentors are volunteers from the local business community that meet with the students weekly to discuss any questions and help them learn how to develop solutions. The Community Champion volunteer fosters relationships with the community, developing new connections, recruiting volunteers and answering any questions about the school. Sponsors are any individuals or businesses that donate money to the program. As the program relies heavily on the participation of community members, the number of schools that can offer the class is limited by volunteer availability. 

Except for the sharks, all volunteer roles are virtual this year and the time commitment can range from as little as one and a half hours per year to several hours per week. “There’s a lot of people out there that want to volunteer and make an impact for our students, and when it’s something they’re passionate about that they do for a living, it just makes it that much easier,” says Director of Community Relations for FISD, Allison Miller.

The project-based format of the class provides teachers and students with a dynamic, collaborative classroom environment and enables students to develop valuable connections with a network of local business leaders. Many students throughout the nation have been able to secure substantial amounts of money from investors after pitching their ideas. After completing the INCubatoredu course, Martin Dimitrov and his team earned a $2,500 award for their SnapClips concept, a barbell training collar modeled after the snap bracelets that used to be popular years ago. They used the money to apply for a patent on the design, just three weeks before a different inventor attempted to apply for a patent on a similar design. “The reason I got up in the morning and was excited to go to high school was because of my INCubatoredu class,” said Dimitrov. The team went on to raise more than $25,000 during a Kickstarter campaign in 2016 and eventually secured funding on Shark Tank in 2018.  

The ACCELeratoredu curriculum simulates a start-up accelerator and is offered in a second-year course after students have developed a business concept in the INCubatoredu class. The class is only being offered to two teams at Centennial this year because to enroll, the team must have a source of funding for their company. Over the year, each team will actually launch the business they developed, apply for an LLC, set up a bank account and learn how to operate a sustainable, successful company. The class focuses on higher-level business concepts, such as legal and banking, customer acquisition and product development. Additionally, a partnership between Uncharted Learning and Google provides students with $3,000 in Google Cloud Platform credits, G Suite Basic, Qwiklab credits for access to training and invitations to Google Cloud events.

In our current Information Age, innovation drives a company’s success and creative thinking is critical. Whether or not students actually go on to start their own business, this unique incubator program provides a valuable opportunity to learn lifelong skills that are transferrable to virtually any job and can help students decide where to focus their future studies and career aspirations. Even at the college level, few students have the opportunity to develop and launch a business in a guided classroom setting. “The kids who are in this class want to be entrepreneurs. They’re not taking a class because they need that credit; they’re taking it because they’re seriously exploring their future as an entrepreneur,” says Miller. “Entrepreneurism is really buzzing in the city itself, with Inspire Frisco, Inspire Park, the incubators … we want to make sure our kids who are in tune with entrepreneurism are plugged in, and this is a way to do that.”

Information about volunteer and sponsorship opportunities can be found on the FISD website at friscoisd.org/departments/business-incubator.

Juliet Cimler is a freelance writer and project manager for a biotech consulting firm in Frisco. She has a B.S. in Business Administration and is pursuing an M.S. in Computer Information Systems.

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