Startup Corps – An Innovative Model of Education & Entrepreneurship

With a mission to educate high school students by empowering  them to launch their own ventures, Startup Corps is a nonprofit that takes an entrepreneurial approach to education.  Believing that students learn best through actual experience, Startup Corps operates with the mantra, “start something real.”  And this is what students do.

Delivered in partnership with local high schools and community organizations, the Startup Corps program encourages student participants to develop and launch ventures that relate to their passions, interests, and values.  Students learn on the ground, as they build a business or organization from the ground-up.  Each week, Startup Corps participants meet to talk about their ventures, meet with mentors, learn new tools, discuss their progress, and most of all, debrief about what they’re learning.

Startup Corps students have started community organizations, music recording enterprises, food businesses, and many other ventures.

I recently spoke with Startup Corps co-founder Christian Kunkel to hear more about the organization, its foundation, vision, and approach to education.


BZ – What motivated you to launch Startup Corps?

CK – I had been working for a consulting firm that helped develop high level strategy for Fortune 500 companies’ leadership and training programs.  We worked with firms to build corporate universities based on models used in the best companies in the world.  However, I found that most large firms don’t train well, and they don’t understand the bigger picture of the value of education.

Eventually, I realized that I really wanted to focus on youth education, rather than corporate education because learning life lessons at a young age has a more powerful outcome.  I started thinking about the influential experiences in my life and what shaped me – what came about as a result of direct experience in challenging environments.   The most transformational experiences of my life did not take place within the structured experience of school.   As kids, we all spend hours in school, but the traditional learning environment isn’t about self-actualization.   

So, I started thinking, why don’t we offer more of these life-changing experiences to kids?

BZ – What were some of those influential experiences in your life?  
CK – When I was in high school, I lived in Spain for a year.  Before leaving, I thought,” I’ll be fine.  I’ve had three years of high school Spanish.”  I arrived and realized that I didn’t know how to conjugate all forms of the verb.  I was stuck.  It was a hard experience, but I learned.  It became one of the greatest, most shaping experiences of my life.

I’ve had other experiences like this too.  For example, I had a cross country coach that helped our small school team achieve much more than we should have, because he pushed us to pursue big goals and test our limits through hard work.  Also, when I started a business I learned an incredible amount  in a very short time because it was absolutely necessary but I was also passionate about it.

BZ – Startup Corps focuses on entrepreneurship.  How does this model provide students with these transformational experiences?
CK – My co-founder, Rich Sedmak, and I had this aha moment when we were examining other entrepreneurship education programs that focus solely on writing a business plan and presenting it.  We knew the only way to truly learn was to help students  start real businesses and organizations.  We believed could develop successful entrepreneurs at a young age.

Business is a tool that has much larger implications both personally and socially.  We thought it was the perfect context because it helps the students accomplish a specific goal, whether financial, social, or organizational and provides self directed opportunities for growth.   There’s so much learning that happens in the process of starting a business.  In a business start-up, you have control over inputs and resources.  You go out and test your assumptions.  It’s all you – you drive it.   This process teaches important interpersonal skills – managing a team, working with disparate personalities.

Most entrepreneurs learn through the experience itself, through trial and error.   We don’t believe that going this route alone is the best way to train entrepreneurs.  So we created the program to support students as they build microenterprises, businesses and non profits.  In the end, the business itself is less important than going out and making something happen, but it is the perfect vehicle to build the universal skills of entrepreneurship.  

BZ – How do students respond to this experience?
CK – We have had very good results with this model, especially re-training students’ thought processes.  However, it’s harder than we imagined to change the way that students think.  They are accustomed to regurgitating information, understanding what gets them a good grade.  So, this self-directed, experiential approach to learning is very new for many of them.

It takes time to break down their current thinking structure and scaffold-up creative thinking processes.  When it fully clicks, we can see a student realize: “It’s about me.  I’m just going out and trying stuff.”  To that we say, “Yep, you got it.  Now, go out and do it.  Don’t wait for permission.”

BZ – How do you develop an environment that encourages students to “go out and do it?”
CK – We intentionally create an environment that’s supportive and caring.  To do that, our leaders and mentors develop individual relationships with the students.  We really get to know them, what motives them, and we keep open communication with them.  We also encourage students to help each other, so when a student goes out of her way to help another, it builds a supportive entrepreneurial environment.  Even if the students have this type of support in other areas of their lives, they still want to be around it at Startup Corps.  They like the program and continuing coming in large part because it’s completely voluntary.  

BZ – Have you developed a curriculum for the program?
CK – Our program is a fusion of proven ideas and methods.   For example, we start the program with personal development, and the students figure out their internal motivations and strengths, set personal goals, and develop a personal mission statement.  For this portion, we use curriculum from the Transformative Action Institute.   From there, we encourage students to look at the problems around them and figure out what type of problem they want to solve.  Then, they brainstorm and look for solutions that connect to their personal motivations.   Then they go do it by designing experiments to determine whether their solution is valid in the real world.

After that, the business education comes as the students develop their ventures.  Sales, finance, and marketing are addressed as the need arises in their businesses.  When a student comes to me with $20 from his first sale, I say, “This is a great time to learn accounting.”

BZ – How does the personal development component impact the students and the ventures that they start?
CK – Entrepreneurs want to start ventures that motivate them.  I’ve found that people don’t often ask students what they care about.  Nobody has said, “You like video games? Cool. Let’s figure out how to make that your job.”  Starting with their motivations ensures they remain passionate about the businesses they start even when it gets tough, which is always does.

Early on, when the students seriously consider their personal motivations and dig into what really matters most to them, they often realize that they care more about a new playground for their neighborhood than making money for themselves.  As a result, many start nonprofits or socially focused for profits.

BZ – What’s next? How do you see the Startup Corps model impacting education?
CK – Right now, we work with area high schools to offer Startup Corps as a program within the school.  We can be an inspiration within these schools to get the students excited about what they can accomplish on their own.  Students see their friends launch new ventures with Startup Corps, and they get excited for their friends.  They also start thinking about what they might do.  So, our wider impact extends beyond just the students in the program and in some cases has changed culture school wide.

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