Seventh grade entrepreneursBy Molly Tanenbaum
Girls' Middle School teaches start-up techniques
Seventh graders from the Girls' Middle School had something better to do than watch the Super Bowl a couple of Sundays ago. They spent the day at Google's headquarters practicing their new skills as young entrepreneurs, pitching product ideas to Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
This unique project is part of an entrepreneurial education class that every seventh grader at the Girls' Middle School has taken since the program's inception in 1997. At first glance it may look like an arts-and-crafts project, but this class provides lessons in all the basics of operating a start-up company -- including financial forecasting, marketing, and team building.
"They learn skills to create ideas and see them come to reality," said Ann Tardy, who has directed the entrepreneurial education program along with Donna Fedor for the past five years. Tardy is founder of LifeMoxie, a "women's economic power consulting firm," and Fedor is a marketing director at Flextronics.
That Sunday evening at Google, the 12 teams of four girls each had a trade show with booths where they sold their products. Then each team presented its business model (on PowerPoint, of course) to a panel of venture capitalists who would invest real dollars in the girls' companies.
Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the products for sale appealed to a target market of middle school girls: hair chopsticks, fuzzy pillows, earrings, chocolate -- though some teams attempted to reach a wider consumer base.
One company named Joyfull hoped to sell homemade drink and soup mixes to "adults with really booked schedules who just want a drink in the office," said Sophie Keller, as she practiced pitching her team's products.
Through this year-long lesson in entrepreneurship, the girls will take away important writing and math lessons, from coming up with 10-page business plans to calculating financial predictions and results.
"All the things that happen in start-ups happen here," said Cheryl Haines, a volunteer coach for one of the teams of girls and director of marketing at VeriSign. Each entrepreneurial team is assigned two adult coaches with business experience to guide them through the project.
But several coaches said the most important lesson is teamwork. Teachers assign the teams, so the girls aren't allowed to work only with their best friends.
One team that has prided itself on getting along is Dragon's Eye, which sells pajama pants, chandelier earrings, hair chopsticks and earring organizers.
"We were really lucky," said seventh grader Anika Joshi as she cheerfully described how well her group gets along.
According to Dena Donahue, a parent and organizer of the event, the Dragon's Eye girls have already sold more than $1,000 worth of products, and their success coming into the Google trade show earned them some prime real estate: one of the first booths that customers would see when they entered.
Another successful team has been Komfort from the Kitchen, also breaking $1,000 with their various food items by selling gingerbread houses around the holidays, Donahue said.
Venture capitalist Vivian Wu, vice president at the private equity firm TA Associates, decided to invest her $100 in Komfort because of the team's demonstrated success.
"When I went through the business plans, this is clearly a team that had done a lot of work. They had done a lot of financial analysis on the costs of their products," Wu said.
But the point of the project isn't to foster competitiveness between teams. No matter how much profit they bring in, each team of girls earns experience in starting a business. As Sunday's keynote speaker, businesswoman Indu Navar, said as she addressed the girls, learning these business skills can help them pursue their dreams.
"It's a nontraditional role for a girl, especially a girl in middle school, to be told she can create and run a business," said Andrea Johnston, the development director at the Girls' Middle School, who is also co-founder of Girls Speak Out, a nonprofit that encourages girls around the world to express themselves.
"These are the future women entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley," Wu said.
Each company is encouraged to donate a certain percentage of its profits to a charitable organization such as Greenpeace, Deer Hollow Farm or Orangutan Foundation International. Participating venture capitalist Christine Comaford-Lynch sees this as a major plus of the project.
"I'm so moved that they're teaching girls about entrepreneurship and at the same time about philanthropy," Comaford-Lynch said. "Our new breed of entrepreneurs will be giving back from the very beginning."
At the end of the event, each of the 12 teams got their desired investment of between $100 and $250. They have until late May to earn enough revenue to pay back their investors.
E-mail Molly Tanenbaum at mtanenbaum