On Developing An Innovation And Entrepreneurship Program

Published: August 15th, 2021
Matthew Moran
Dwight School's S...
from New York, NY, USA
started January 2015
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My name is Matthew Moran and I direct the Spark Tank program at Dwight School in New York, NY. Spark Tank is a K-12 incubator, sponsored by The Dwight School Foundation and designed to nurture student innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership skills beyond the classroom. Beginning in kindergarten, students can participate in Spark Tank to develop their ideas for new businesses, non-profits, or products. Students are eligible to receive financial grants to support their projects as well as mentoring from the panel of experts on the Spark Tank Committee.

Dwight is one of the only K-12 schools in America to offer this incubator experience. We believe that the next “big ideas” will come from the under-18 sector. Spark Tank provides students with real-life experience and essential skills beyond academics and theory, so they can pursue their dreams now rather than at some uncertain time in the future.

Since we launched Spark Tank in 2015, this has been the most successful year for Spark Tank entrepreneurs, in particular thanks to the success of two non-profits SustainABLE Start and Sole Purpose, both of which launched during the pandemic with a focus on providing everyday necessities to those in need.

Spark Tank logo

Photos of students distributing Sole Purpose packs at a Service Day event

What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

Before I became involved with Spark Tank, I had been a math, science, and technology teacher for middle and high school students ever since I took my first teaching job out of college. My undergraduate degree was in economics, so I always had an interest in the business world and the larger economic issues outside of schools. But when I was in my senior year of college, I just knew that I didn’t want to go work in a bank or other financial institution, and instead I was drawn to a career in teaching.

Try to identify the problem to solve and the potential customer. Even if it is just an exercise for the creative muscles and entrepreneurial mindset, it can help prepare for the next idea that comes along.

At the time, I thought I might only be a teacher for a short period of time, but now I have been teaching for over a decade and I really appreciate how working in a school provides new challenges all the time, especially when teaching a non-traditional subject like entrepreneurship.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

Before we launched Spark Tank, there was a general idea of what an in-school incubator program could look like but the picture was far from clear in the beginning. One thing that helped us to get started was to rely on the experience and expertise that we already had. As an International Baccalaureate World School, Dwight already taught students about design-thinking through the technology curriculum, so we built upon those basic concepts when creating a structure for the entrepreneurship program.

We also had several students who had already begun their own entrepreneurial efforts in small ways; one tenth-grade student had developed a mobile app for students and another was even featured on The Tonight Show for inventing a Live Time Closed Captioning System to translate speech-to-text in a Google Glass-like display. These early projects were great examples for other students who were looking to become entrepreneurs and inventors themselves. The experienced students became mentors to the younger ones and shared their experiences from their own successes and failures.

In the beginning, one of the premises that we started with was that we would use the experience of creating this entrepreneurship program as a model for students to learn about entrepreneurship itself. When we started, we had to experience many of the same problems that any entrepreneur does: identifying relevant problems and potential customers (or in our case, students), focusing the seemingly limitless possibilities into a few efforts to concentrate on, and scaling up our efforts as interest in the program grew. Even so, in the beginning, we made things much too complicated for ourselves and had plans that were far too ambitious to meet the students where they were. Very quickly, we scaled things back and simplified the most important processes, such as handling the intake of a new student who had expressed an interest in starting their own business.

At the time of our first pitch night, we had many of the systems in place that we use today. One of the most essential components of the program has been that we have an outstanding group of parents and alumni who have served as judges for student’s pitch presentations as well as mentors to the young entrepreneurs. We couldn’t have the success that we have had without their guidance to help the students develop their entrepreneurship skills.

Now, several years later we hold our pitch events several times a year and open them up to the community (through virtual webinar formats for the moment though we hope to hold them in person again too). The program has made some small changes to the format of the events or the guidance that we give to the students, but the biggest change has been the way that we keep raising the bar by which we measure the students’ success and learning.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Today is a very interesting time in the Spark Tank program’s development because many of our most successful projects launched in the past year and there has been a particular focus among them on creating non-profit services. These include SustainABLE Start and Sole Purpose which have each raised tens of thousands of dollars and much more through in-kind donations to provide essential items to those in need. In light of their accomplishments, we want to put added emphasis on the links between entrepreneurship and service to others.

Since we began Spark Tank, most students have gotten involved more out of a desire to help others than to make a profit for themselves and that continues to be a trend. As we have seen some service-oriented projects breakthrough to have a wider impact, we are also looking at how to take lessons learned from those successes and apply them to newer efforts. There is also some opportunity for there to be more sustaining innovations as several projects have scaled up to involve larger teams that are better equipped to handle the transitions when a founding member graduates. It’s very exciting to think about the possibilities as our network of student entrepreneurs and alumni continue to grow.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Since we are advising young people on entrepreneurship, we need to keep things simple. Some of the most important work that we do is to help young entrepreneurs to focus their ideas and develop attainable goals. One of the most important ways that we do this is by breaking the entrepreneurial process into discrete stages: Idea, Plan, Prototype, Operations, and Launch. Each of these stages has a brief checklist of the most important tasks to accomplish which helps to prioritize the things that are mission-critical to develop a project from idea to launch.

Stages of the Spark Tank process

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

The technology we use to run the Spark Tank program is relatively simple: Google Sheets to organize information and keep track of projects and many other Google Apps (Docs, Sheets, Drive, etc) to organize the content that we create for students and that they create to share their projects. Once they have an idea developed, we regularly recommend for students to create an Instagram account for their project to help promote it and gauge the interest of their audience.

The tools that students use to create their products can be incredibly varied though. Some students have used basic CAD programs to create 3D models and prints of their products. Others have used tools like the Marvel app to create mockups of app ideas. But since our program is an incubator for all types of projects, we have students using tools from digital design to tools for fashion design.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

It probably goes without saying that Shark Tank was an inspiration for the Spark Tank program, including our panel of judges. Additionally, some of the most valuable resources for learning about startups and entrepreneurship have been the “Startup” and “How I Built This” podcasts, which are really valuable for providing a first-person narrative of individuals who have built or are building businesses.

Some of the most helpful books have been “The Lean Startup,” “Business Model Generation” and other books by Alexander Osterwalder (we use the Business Model Canvas often with our students), and “The $100 Startup.” All of these books help to provide vocabulary and frameworks that are easy to understand and translate to a student’s life experience. Another very influential book is “The Checklist Manifesto” because we have so much of our program organized around checklists for students to use as they move through the stages of their entrepreneurial journey.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

Some of the most important advice that we frequently give to our student entrepreneurs is focused on a few key areas like finding business ideas and developing the goals for their projects.

One problem that frequently comes up in the ideation stage is that an aspiring entrepreneur will either dismiss their own ideas too easily or jump from one idea to the next without really settling on one long enough to develop it in any meaningful way. But really this is the same problem either way; it’s a crisis of confidence. I often encourage students to pick any idea, even if they are unsure about it, and develop a pitch for it. Try to identify the problem to solve and the potential customer. Even if it is just an exercise for the creative muscles and entrepreneurial mindset, it can help prepare for the next idea that comes along.

However, even more, important than generating ideas and pitches is taking action and talking to people. Once a student has an idea for a business, product, or service, they need to step out of their comfort zone and talk to people about it to see if they can generate some interest. And even better than that is to really engage with people to see if there is some way they can deliver something of value to the potential customer even if it is in a really simplistic or crude form. I see a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs who seem to want to plan everything out perfectly before they talk to anyone about their work, but this just doesn’t work. Engaging with people is how we learn if our ideas are good enough or not, and in the end, the value of a business depends on delivering something of value to the end-user so it’s important to not be afraid to be incomplete or imperfect. You’ll never get anywhere by keeping your word to yourself and waiting for perfection to arrive.

Where can we go to learn more?