Campus & Community

Paving the way to entrepreneurship

5 min read

Competition shows high school students a path to success

The American Dream came within closer reach for a group of Boston high school students recently when they got an insider’s look at entrepreneurship.

Nearly four dozen students from Brighton High School, Mary Lyon Pilot High School, and the West End House Boys and Girls Club participated in a program designed to show them how a business grows from idea to practice. The program is in partnership with Harvard Business School, the Harvard Ed Portal, the Boston Private Industry Council, and the West End House Boys and Girls Club.

“This has been an opportunity to expose high school students to the excitement and challenges of entrepreneurship, and allow them to explore possibilities for academic and career paths in this space,” said Margot Dushin, director of programs for the Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Initiative.

Beginning with a tour of the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab) in early April, the young scholars watched Harvard students, faculty, and affiliates develop their business plans and products. The i-lab is an experiential think tank where users explore ideas from the conceptual stages in conference rooms to development in hands-on laboratories equipped with the latest apparatus and technologies, and areas for prototyping and testing products.

“The faculty chairs said, ‘We have smart students with smart ideas, how do we make those real?’” said Alice Li, associate director for health and sciences at the Harvard Innovation Labs. “It’s not about spinning out a lot of companies; this is a safe space to test and get answers to all your questions around entrepreneurship.”

Stephanie Ortega (left) of Boston Latin Academy takes notes during the finale competition in Burden auditorium. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

“Entrepreneurship 101” class, the high school students had the opportunity to have their questions answered by 2014 i-lab resident John Wise, M.B.A. ’15. Wise, co-founder of Lovepop, a 3-D pop-up greeting card company, showed the students how a new business is put together.

“I wanted to make a meaningful impact and I knew what I was good at, but it took many years of accumulating skills and knowledge and experience to be able to turn the corner and do this,” Wise said. “The entrepreneurship road is the most challenging and also the most rewarding. Of anything I’ve done, the most I’ve developed as a person is through doing this.”

Wise sparked the students’ imagination when he shared that he and partner Wombi Rose, M.B.A. ’15, took their idea to reinvent the greeting card all the way to ABC’s “Shark Tank,” where they won $300,000 in 2015.

Brighton High School senior Mena Mossa was so excited that she said she will email her own ideas to Wise.

“Today was an awesome day for me. I appreciated learning about John’s goal to help people think about others,” she said. “It has really inspired me. I hope one day I can work with him, it would mean so much to me.”

Lybille Rocher, a Brighton High junior interested in business and law, asked how to create a mobile application.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about an app that will benefit the homeless population, but don’t know how to start or who to talk to,” she said. “I am hoping I can get the answers today.”

Mena Mossa (left) of Brighton High School listens as John Wise lectures on building a new business. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Brighton High School student Mamudo Dahaba is a long way from his first home in Guinea Bissau, West Africa, but “I see something amazing here,” he said.

“I’m having fun. I’m learning a lot and would love to be part of this.”

The high school student engagement program is coordinated by the HBS Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, Social Enterprise Initiative, HBS Dean’s Office, and the Harvard Ed Portal. It culminated with the 20th Harvard Business School New Venture Competition finale on April 25 at Burden Auditorium, where students saw more creative minds in action.

At the finale, selected Harvard students and alumni presented their venture plans to judges, supporters, and potential investors. Cash awards totaling more than $300,000 were awarded to winners in alumni, student social enterprise, and student business tracks.

HBS Senior Associate Dean for External Relations William A. Sahlman gave some key advice before announcing the awards in the business plan competition: “The first rule of entrepreneurship is nothing happens until someone sells something,” he said.

The high school students participated in their own mock-competition at the Ed Portal before the finale, acting as both judges and participants. They watched a video of last year’s presentation, reviewed the finalists’ entries, and cast votes for the best project.

Brighton High senior Hoda Abbas said she enjoyed that practice time. “I liked seeing how the judging worked before we went to the competition. When my company won, I felt like I made a difference,” she said.

“This is what I needed to really gel what it means to be a social entrepreneur,” said Stephanie Ortega. “I want to be one.”

Daniel Cuddy, senior career specialist with the Boston Private Industry Council, said he believes the high school student engagement program helps young people understand that education, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship can offer an exciting and rewarding life.

“The Harvard Venture Competition is so motivating for our students to observe and learn that the classroom is a direct connection to the workplace and the real world,” he said. “I want to thank Harvard Business School and the Harvard Ed Portal for all their overwhelming support of our local Boston Public School students. This program is changing their lives.”