How These Middle-School Students Took First Place at a Startup Accelerator

Mar 15, 2016 12:00:00 AM


When Fidel Jonapa heard his team declared the winner of a design competition late last month, he was momentarily baffled. It had to be a mistake. The event was a weekend-long contest in which Minnesota’s adult technology entrepreneurs raced for 54 hours to bring startup concepts to life. Jonapa and his classmates were seventh- and eighth-graders at a Minneapolis middle school. “I was like—what?” Jonapa says. “Why us?” Teammate Aria Denisen was having a similar reaction. “They announced third place and second place as we were like, ‘Oh well, we did a good job this weekend,” she says. “And then they announced us.” Adds Jack Sarenpa-Maldonado: “I thought he pulled a Steve-Harvey-at-Miss-Universe moment.” The teacher who encouraged the kids to participate, Troy Strand, was thrilled to hear the judges’ reasoning. The win, he says, wasn’t because of “the cute factor.”

Building a 'Nation of Makers'

Strand oversees the makerspace at Venture Academy, a three-year-old public charter middle school with a focus on entrepreneurship. In order to earn a diploma from Venture High, which the program's founders will launch next fall, students will be required to start a business, build a team and conduct a workplace apprenticeship. A room equipped with a 3D printer and other high- and low-tech toys, a makerspace is where people—in this case middle-schoolers—come together to invent, tinker and engineer. Last week, President Barack Obama announced a series of initiatives aimed at strengthening the tech skills of the American workforce. An extension of Obama’s 2014 Nation of Makers campaign, the Career and Technical Education Makeover Challenge is a U.S. Department of Education effort to get high schools to create makerspaces. In June, innovators from all over the country will converge on Washington for the National Week of Making, which will include a two-day celebration on the University of the District Columbia campus. Venture’s startup team could be literal poster-children for the event. The school serves a cross-section of the Twin Cities' most disadvantaged youth: 45 percent Latino, 35 percent Black, 10 percent Native American and 10 percent white. More than 90 percent live in poverty, 28 percent are learning English and one-fourth are in special education. The school uses an innovative model which hands kids the power to design their own learning plans using a combination of hands-on experiences and online curricula. Last year its students, many of whom start out years behind, made more growth than all but one Minneapolis school serving the same grades.

Filling the 'Empty Box'

In handing Venture’s innovators the win, the startup weekend judges explained that the students had a distinct advantage over the 10 adult teams in that their innovation would meet a need experienced every day in their environment—the classroom. The winning entry—a website that went live by the end of the weekend called Students Solve—is a prototype of an online fundraising platform that is simple and intuitive enough for kids, or their time-pressed teachers, to use. People who depend on crowd-sourced funding have experience explaining why strangers should open their wallets. By contrast, students are still learning the individual elements of persuasive speech. Meanwhile, teachers frequently dream up great projects but are too time-strapped to drum up financial support. Strand heard about the startup weekend from Eric Nelson, who used to run the school’s makerspace. Nelson is connected to the group of education technology entrepreneurs, Educelerate North, that sponsored the competition. The students didn’t need much convincing to enter, but they did need a good concept. They tried on several, but discarded them as too complicated to be accomplished in one weekend or too much like an existing technology. When it finally hit, inspiration came from an unlikely source. The mess left after lunch upset everybody but there wasn’t enough cleaning supplies or the right kind. The three-year-old charter was rich in innovations but not cash. Teachers were usually too busy to write grant proposals and students, who were urged to act as real-life stewards of their program, found sites like Kickstarter or GoFundMe confusing. The students immediately saw dozens of possible applications. Most members of the school’s delegation to the state’s Youth in Government program got scholarships, but each student still had to come up with $100 of the fee, plus money to buy the required business attire. And Venture’s technology-rich model means staff are constantly trying to find money for equipment and software. The team tested the idea by surveying 43 students and 16 teachers on their past experiences. “They told us their frustrations around fundraising and what student crowdsourcing could do in their classrooms,” says Sarenpa-Maldonado. At the event’s Friday-night kickoff, the group had 60 seconds to pitch their idea to the assembled entrepreneurs in the hope that some of the participants who did not show up with their own ideas would join them. In addition to Strand and his makerspace predecessor, Nelson, the idea captivated Eli Krumholtz, who has web development skills and is finishing a doctorate in computational biology at the University of Minnesota. “Even in grad school, it’s still intimidating to write a pitch about what you want money for,” he says. “Existing crowdfunding sites [provide] an empty box. You have to write the entire story for the world.” “You need a developer?” he told the students. “Great. You’ve got one now.”

The Perfect Pitch

The model the expanded team (which got a new student member, Cole Backman, after the event) refined over the weekend starts with a questionnaire that would-be fundraisers fill out. Answers are captured in a database, from which they can be “poured” into a variety of formats: A fundraiser homepage, an e-mail blast, a press release and so forth. The team put together a prototype website and a PowerPoint and did a dry run of their presentation to the event organizers Sunday morning. They had a few hours to incorporate the adult entrepreneurs’ feedback before presenting for real, five minutes of pitching and five answering questions. “We did way better than the first time,” says Jesus Castillo. The judges were particularly interested in the data the students had gathered from likely users to validate their approach, and by the sophistication of their plans for user-testing as they refined the site. TCSWEDU 2016 | Students Solve from TECHdotMN on Vimeo. Along with bragging rights, the students and their adult partners will get pro bono legal work from a local firm and industry mentors. They were originally supposed to get airfare for two to a bigger startup competition in New York, but with five students and unmet needs, the students asked if they could have in-kind technical assistance instead. To get their beta site fully functional, the students are likely to have to hire programming assistance, which will put them in the ironic position of having to figure out how to crowdsource a campaign to make raising money easier. But after the marathon weekend he spent with the kids, Krumholtz is convinced that the online platform will come to fruition. “I was amazed the kids had the guts to pitch their idea and to see it through,” he says. “I was blown away.” Want to stay abreast of the Venture Academy team's progress? Follow them on Twitter: @StudentsSolve.
Photos courtesy of Venture Academies. First photo taken in front of Venture Academy, from left to right, Fidel Jonapa, Aria Denisen, Jack Sarenpa-Maldonado, Jesus Castillo. Second photo taken at Educelerate’s 2016 Twin Cities Startup Weekend Education event.

Beth Hawkins

Beth Hawkins is a writer at The 74, and formerly was a writer-in-residence at Education Post. Previously she wrote for Learning Curve, a blog about education for MinnPost, where she also covered a variety of other public policy topics. She loves writing for an audience that’s hungry for context and analysis and willing to indulge her many curiosities. Hawkins is the recipient of numerous national and regional awards, including several first-place Society of Professional Journalists Page One Awards for investigative reporting and feature writing. Her work has appeared in More, Mother Jones, Minnesota Monthly and many other publications. You can also find her blogging at

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