How Helping Students Get Comfortable With Failure Can Increase Economic Equity
By: Michael Archbold and Ron Harris
Here’s something we’ve asked ourselves time and again over the years we’ve taught and mentored high school students: How do we explain that big dreams often are accompanied by minor setbacks — or even failures — without discouraging them from dreaming big?
It’s a challenge in every classroom, but none more so than those in schools with predominantly minority and economically disadvantaged students — like Rich Township High School District 227 in Richton Park, Illinois, where we teach and mentor students in entrepreneurship education courses.
At Rich Township, the student body is 90 percent Black and about 6 percent Latinx, with a poverty rate of 80 percent. Unfortunately, these kids don’t have deep connections to the local business community. They don’t get to rub elbows with entrepreneurs around the dinner table. They don’t learn about all the challenges a first-generation business owner faced before finally getting an idea off the ground. They don’t hear stories about the failures that preceded their success.
The lack of role models who are entrepreneurs, small business owners, and venture capitalists is an all-too-common reality for Black and brown children across the nation. The result is a fear of failure: A recent report by McKinsey & Company revealed that Black entrepreneurs are likely to keep their businesses small, while also gravitating to low-profit sectors. As those of us in entrepreneurship education might say, this is a problem at the ideation level.
One solution is showing students how to persevere in the face of adversity, to learn from their mistakes, and move forward with a better plan.
In August, Rich Township launched its first course using Uncharted Learning’s INCubatoredu curriculum. The course is all about giving students an authentic entrepreneurship experience, warts and all. That means getting them comfortable with the concept of failure.
At the start of the semester, we placed students into teams, then paired each one with a business person or entrepreneur from the community — like the IT solutions firm CDW, where Ron works — who’ll serve as a mentor for the year-long course.
The course works like this: Teams are asked to create a product or concept that solves a problem in their community. They brainstorm ideas; settle on something specific; sketch out the design; build it themselves or find people who can; and develop packaging or a marketing strategy. At the end of the year, the teams pitch their ideas to actual investors who may or may not provide start-up money for these entrepreneurs’ budding businesses. A few will win seed money, launch start-ups, sell their products, and turn a profit. But many more won’t. And that’s OK. The goal isn’t to create the next Microsoft or Amazon, but rather to teach students to rebound from setbacks.
When our INCubatoredu teams started developing ideas for their products, we marveled at their incredible creativity, cheering them on as they forged ahead with their own ideas about how to make the world a better place — as though failure were no option.
Then for some teams, reality set in as they began creating their products. Some were impractical to produce; others provided little, if any, profit margin. When these teams inevitably reported their “failures” to us, we delivered some version of the following speech: “So what? This happens to entrepreneurs and people in business all the time. Now, report back to us on what you learned. What will you do differently next time? And what’s your next idea?” In other words, we show them that “failure” is an opportunity, not a terminal condition.
For most students, it’s a paradigm shift. In the academic world, “failure” leads to any number of negative outcomes — retaking a course, repeating a grade, or, in the most drastic situations, dropping out of high school altogether. But once they wrap their brains around the notion that not every idea will work, they stop editing their ideas and begin dreaming big.
One senior in our class, Anastasia Jackson, told us that freeing herself of the fear of failure has helped her “think outside of the box a little when coming up with ideas.” She improvises more often and has learned to keep a backup plan handy.
“The road to being successful is full of mistakes,” she said. “But the most important thing is that you learn from them and not just correct them. During this course, I’ve come up with good ideas and I’ve also come up with some bad ideas, but I’ve learned some important things from both.“
This is in no way meant to minimize the consequences of failure among minority entrepreneurs. The same report from McKinsey & Company also said that only 4 percent of Black-owned businesses survive past the start-up phase. The financial risks, too, are significantly greater for Black entrepreneurs, who the report notes spend 50 percent of their revenue paying off debts.
But if more students like Anastasia were equipped with the tools provided by entrepreneurship education — perseverance, tenacity, endurance — then they might pursue bigger dreams with even greater rewards. That will take more mentors like those from CDW who can show students the rewards that come from persistence. And that means finding ways to show companies and entrepreneurs the value of working with a population of students who have had limited exposure to people like them.
The business and entrepreneurial communities can’t afford to let that opportunity pass them by. For our students, entrepreneurship education is the start of a larger vision, one filled with opportunities to invent the next great product, lead a Fortune 500 company or open their own business. Hopefully, not all of our students will become entrepreneurs — we need some of them to become scientists and surgeons, artists, and educators.
No matter what future path they choose, they’ll demonstrate adaptability in the face of challenges, resilience in the face of failure. And that is where true equity begins.
For more, see:
- Thomas Homer-Dixon on Commanding Hope and the Nature of Complexity
- Ten Ways Schools Can Build Students’ Social Capital
Michael Archbold is a INCubatoredu Teacher at Rich Township High School District 227, Richton Park, Illinois.
Ron Harris is the Director of Integrated Technology Services, CDW.
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