Monthly Archives: January 2013

‘They Are Able to Turn Deficits into Positives’

Learning shared by The Possible Project from working with high school entrepreneurs.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

In continuing the exploration of how innovation and entrepreneurialism can empower people to better their own situation, I discovered The Possible Project. Having seen firsthand The Possible Project’s positive impact with high school students using entrepreneurialism as a motivator, I believe it is important to share the lessons learned here in the Work of Start.

Illustration of Megan Dolan, Leah Camhi, and Jacey Buel of The Possible Project by Jason Freeman

The Possible Project serves as an afterschool program for Cambridge Rindge & Latin School (the main public high school) and two public charter schools, Prospect Hill Academy Charter School and Community Charter School of Cambridge. I sat down one morning with Leah Camhi (Executive Director), Megan Dolan (Development & Communications Manager), and Jacey Buel (Entrepreneurship Education Director) at The Possible Project workspace in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to talk about working with high school students as they become entrepreneurs in the program.

Megan first shares how The Possible Project has evolved over the program’s existence. This evolution has been spurred by having the opportunity to listen to the students directly and learning from their individual situations. She elaborates on the importance of adapting the program based on understanding the individuals they serve, and that there was no way to “account for the difficulty and challenges that many of our students face in their lives” until the actual work was underway. Megan also shares her appreciation for Jacey’s strong encouragement to move away from strictly planning the curriculum and more toward accelerating the timeline of actually working with students when the program was initially being developed. Leah reinforces the importance of learning through doing and shares that as The Possible Project continues to grow their intent is to be “malleable enough that we can figure out what is working and isn’t working.”

Traveling abroad, taking care of younger siblings, and participating in school activities such as sports are all examples of “life happening” for students in The Possible Project. The organization has responded with big changes such as moving from a semester to a trimester system to give students additional entry (and reentry points) into the program, and small changes including adjustments to the student incentive programs (students are now rewarded with prize redemption points instead of gift cards for progress in developing their individual businesses). It is the pragmatism and flexibility seen in working with The Possible Project that has so impressed me, and I ask the group to share more about their unique approach to encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit in their students.

“Everything that we try to do is really built around teamwork because there is more accountability if you have got a partner or partners,” shares Leah. The importance of starting with teamwork is elaborated by Leah through an observation that “if you infuse something at the very beginning then it becomes commonplace.” During a discussion about how to foster a collaborative environment, Jacey explains that the majority of the time a student is at The Possible Project “there is no such thing as speaking out of turn.” For instance, a Possible Project student is not going to have to raise a hand and be addressed formally to actively participate in a team conversation about developing their business.

It is a discussion about The Possible Project’s emphasis on teamwork along with differences from a traditional high school curriculum that prompts Megan to impart “we are purposefully not school-like in our approach, but we have a very strong connection to the schools.” These ties to the high schools include their nomination of students for The Possible Project, maintaining a formal point of contact at a school, and reports about the students’ academic and behavioral progress. While Leah points out how critical it is to have these formal affiliations to the schools and the students they serve, she also notes the importance of having people from the Cambridge community such as Jacey on The Possible Project’s staff.

Leveraging ties to the community also involves tapping into other resources such as a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cambridge. Megan describes what she has coined the “e-shuffle” where students are able to interact with various local entrepreneurs who are also building a business. Leah smiles as she quips that the students are energized by bringing back the numerous business cards they have collected during these interactions and that “they love to have ‘business contacts.’” It is this external contact that gives the students perspective on the challenges of building a business and opens their mind to new opportunities.

The Possible Project students are also able to glean from the e-shuffle a passion that is usually invested in a startup by the founders. Starting a business imparts a sense of ownership and dedication, according to Jacey, because students in the program “pick things that are personal to them, or that bring out a part of them that would not be brought out in school.” The discussion on passion also highlights an interesting and counterintuitive element of The Possible Project: entrepreneurism used as a motivator for the students that are struggling in school as well as for the students who are doing well academically. Jacey points out that for the academically-successful, entrepreneurialism “gives them the opportunity to have fun.” He shares an example of a student who uses time to bake cookies for her business as an outlet to counterbalance the pressure of homework and tests.

The students in The Possible Project and the businesses they create are “not treated as some off-hand hobby,” as stated by the staff. The dedication to treating the students and their businesses in a serious way comes through very clearly when talking to Leah, Megan, and Jacey. When asked why the group is so passionate about the program, I’m given the analogy of those inspirational entrepreneurs who go out to solve problems using their own unique set of skills and resources. In a similar way, The Possible Project works for the students because, with respect to talent and passions that might not be appreciated in the high school setting, “they are able to turn deficits into positives.”

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.