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by Gillett Cole

As part of our microeconomics course, we partnered with Marc Seldin and Mark Tough to include a pilot of their college-level learning program called “Rising Innovators,“ for adolescents. Rising Innovators is an experiential course, providing students with an introductory blend of the hard and soft skills needed to begin their journey towards creating a new small business. The program included seven weeks of discussion, lecture, and the presentation of case studies, culminating in a team-based activity, focused on the creation of a business idea that was presented by teams at the final pitch competition, like “Shark Tank.” One of the judges on our panel coined it “Guppy Tank”.

The competition took place on Wednesday, February 23. There were six teams. The teams varied from a team of one to a team of five. The panel consisted of seven judges with a variety of experiences. Two of the judges were seniors in NewGate’s I.B. business program. One judge was a senior at the University of Tampa, and the other three judges had vast experiences owning and running successful small businesses.

The judges were handed a rubric to help score each team’s performance. Each team was evaluated on three components: a pitch deck (colored slides that discussed their big idea, target market, and market analysis); a one-sheet synopsis that captured their pitch deck’s main points (something they could leave behind for potential investors), and lastly, each team was evaluated on their overall presentation (style points, eye contact, and team coordination). After each pitch, the team was peppered with thoughtful (sometimes tough) questions by the judges. Team members had to quickly think on their feet, and some realized that they don’t have all the answers. They realized that when you don’t know the answer to something, sometimes the best response is, “That’s a great question; let me get back to you on that.” Most importantly, the question-and-answer session provided an amazing opportunity for the students to hear direct and honest feedback from the judges — valuable, honest feedback from adults who were not their teachers. As well, the judges were able to weave in bits of wisdom and common sense by providing constructive criticism for each team.

All six teams performed well. Their big ideas were truly innovative and varied. Some of the ideas were ways in which we could innovate the recycling of plastic grocery bags (building a hydro-powered generator that collects rainwater to power a home) and a shoe that grows with your feet. The students were well-poised and genuinely seemed excited to present their work. The winning team walked away with a cash prize and high-fives.

What lessons did the students receive from this course? By reading various case studies, the students realized that everyday folks, from young to old, were able to turn a big idea into a dream by taking initiative and working hard. They realized most ideas in our marketplace are not inventions, but rather, innovations. The idea that they can take something that is already out there and make it better, instead of trying to come up with something totally new was quite appealing to them. In this fashion, the task seemed more attainable. They began to understand that entrepreneurship requires a positive mental attitude, initiative, hard work, and followthrough — qualities we try to instill in our students at a young age. The students also realized that a fancy, well-designed pitch deck and one sheet are subordinate to their ability to tell a good story and maintain good eye contact with their audience. In fact, the most consistent feedback from the judges was whether or not the presenters made good eye contact. Students learned a valuable lesson — reading from a script does not earn you style points in public speaking. An important lesson for all. •

Gillett Cole is an AMI trained Montessori Guide who has been teaching for 13 years. He is currently teaching language arts, mathematics, and microeconomics to middle school students at the NewGate school in Sarasota, Florida. He and his family recently moved to Sarasota in August of 2021 from St. Paul, Minnesota. Gillett has two daughters, who both went to Montessori schools, and are now in college. Gillett loves the outdoors, swimming, sailing, and a good book.