Startup Ecosystem Seeping Into High School Ranks

Startups are starting to be big business in Arkansas, and the kids are starting to notice. Chad Williamson of Noble Impact will lead a contingent of Little Rock high school students to Startup Weekend in Fayetteville Friday to compete along side their adult counterparts.

Noble Impact, which partners with the Clinton School of Public Service, teaches high school students how to engage public service through entrepreneurship, and co-founder Williamson teaches a Noble Impact course at eStem High School, the public charter school in downtown Little Rock.

Indeed, the entrepreneurial momentum that's enveloped the state over the last five years or so is seeping into the high school ranks. Noble Impact, started last year, works with high schools to promote entrepreneurship and the Arkansas Economic Acceleration Foundation's Youth Entrepreneur Showcase offers annual business plan competitions for students in grades 5-8 and 9-12.

Earlier this fall, one of three winning teams at the nationally renowned ARK Challenge startup accelerator in Fayetteville was led by a 17-year-old senior at Little Rock's Catholic High School. Josh Moody's Overwatch team won $150,000 — and the eyes of national investors — to further develop its combat gaming app.

Williamson sees more opportunity for students to embrace entrepreneurship than there ever has been.

"In my opinion, the momentum around entrepreneurship in high school is in direct relation to giving students different opportunities and avenues to express their ideas, creativity and talents," he said. "In essence, we want to introduce real world opportunities and then act as facilitators and mentors in the process from pitching to a press release."

Of course, kids are much more sophisticated these days and ready at an earlier age to tackle some of the challenges inherit in entrepreneurship. Moody, for example, was turning PlayStation portables into TV remotes at age 13. He firmly believes anyone his age can follow the path he's taken.

"Anyone given the resources and support I was given, as long as they are willing to do whatever it takes, is capable of doing exactly what I have done," he said. "In fact, I hope to see increased interest in programs like the ARK from students my age. If I could do it, someone else can as well."

Moody came by his entrepreneurial streak naturally. His father, David Moody, is a former startup executive and a startup consultant involved in the establishment of the Arkansas Venture Center, an accelerator for Little Rock, and Sparkible, a program that aims to introduce high school kids to the entrepreneurial basics.

David believes others can follow the model established this fall by Catholic High, which allowed Josh to start his senior year remotely while finishing up at the ARK.

"What Joshua has accomplished so far can certainly be emulated with the right combination of resources, contacts, flexibility and personal attributes of a strong work ethic, willingness to learn on your own, positive attitude and an understanding that failure as just another way to learn how not to do something," David said. "Fail fast on the cheap, and adjust. Most school schedules are not designed to accommodate the out-of-class learning required by young entrepreneurs and most schools don’t have the curriculum or personnel to teach the nuts of bolts of how to create a startup company or develop products."

He believes there are some specific things schools can do to support their students who engage in entrepreneurial activity.

"First, schools can help make the schedule a bit more flexible for those students with entrepreneurial pursuits as long as those students are responsible and get their class work done," he said. "Second, since school schedules and calendars are rather rigid by design, schools can look for opportunities to provide, support or advertise entrepreneurial programs after school or on the weekends.

"Finally, schools can help students develop the work ethic, perseverance, accountability, responsibility and respect for others that is required to be a successful entrepreneur," he said.

"Catholic High has done all of that without being pushed. While CHS will not compromise its values or the quality of the education it offers in a faith-based environment, school administrators and teachers listened when approached by a young man with a dream and plan to execute it. They put it on Joshua to devise a workable plan with his teachers for keeping up with the work. His teachers, led by Steve Straessle, the principal, were willing to be flexible as long as Joshua held up his end of the bargain."

Straessle said Catholic High has made similar accommodations in the past where learning was the focal point, and would do so again under the right circumstances.

"Josh’s circumstances were unique, and coupled with his demonstrated tenacity, perseverance, and intellect, it was an easy yes," he said. "Would we do this for others? Similarly equipped – yes."

High school students who want to test the entrepreneurial waters need start from a strong foundation, he stressed.

"A strong high school curriculum is intrinsic to success in any endeavor. Simply put, a teenager must walk before he can run," Straessle said. "We do not recommend any student forgoing the fundamentals: becoming good readers, good writers, good communicators, understanding math and science principles and having a healthy respect for history. 

"But, with students who have already demonstrated some mastery of those concepts, it is a natural evolution to allow for some growth outside of the confines of a high school building. This does not degrade or replace the high school experience, it enhances the high school experience," Straessle said. "For example, students interested in photography should pursue that field, but not at the expense of learning the fundamentals. Otherwise, there is little likelihood that this passion could be anything more than that. 

"Kids need to learn to speak well, to write well, to read well, to master principles of science and math so they can take that passion and do something with it. It's one thing to have all the talent in the world. It's another to make good use of that talent. That's where the fundamentals come in."

When the Moodys decided this past spring to pursue Josh's idea for a real life, combat gaming app, David used his connections in the northwest Arkansas startup community to introduce his son to Joe Saumweber and Michael Paladino of Bentonville digital media startup RevUnit. (Paladino is a 1997 Catholic High graduate.) He was seeking feedback on Josh's idea and respected their work at the Innovate Arkansas client firm.

Saumweber said they took the meeting with Josh as a courtesy to his dad, but came away both impressed and surprised with Josh and his idea. Both family men in their 30s, neither Saumweber nor Paladino expected to come out of the meeting with Josh ready to launch the Overwatch startup and then be accepted that summer into the ARK.

"Josh, in many ways, represents a new generation of technology leadership," Saumweber said. "We were blown away that a 17-year-old kid was hanging with us on conversations around software development and the hardware limitations of current mobile devices. He had put a lot of thought into the value he wanted to bring to users, and it was evident that he would be a capable partner. We walked away from that first conversation excited about Overwatch and scared to death that we would be irrelevant in 10 years as Josh and more like him grow into their careers."