Emily Stein, Teen Entrepreneur | Washington, D.C.
What inspired you to create this class at your high school?
I've been interested in entrepreneurship ever since I was in first grade. I would organize the kids who were living on my street to do little art shows, where we would put the pieces up on the windows in our houses and sell them to the parents. And lemonade stands, of course! Then when I was 12 or 13, I was really interested in fashion. I would go down to the consignment stores in Washington, DC and buy items there, so that I could resell them online and make money. That was really fun for me.
When I was in my sophomore year of high school, I was really passionate about wanting the education system to change. I wanted classes where I was able to explore what I was interested in, and do something rather than sit there and listen to a lecture, or fill out a worksheet.
I went to a talk at Johns Hopkins with Esther Wojcicki, who is an innovative teacher from Palo Alto High School in California. And I was really jealous because the classes at her school are awesome - the students really get to explore what they're interested in. During the car ride home with my mom, she said, “why don't you try to bring something like that to Churchill?” At first I said, “okay mom, like that's going to happen!” But by the time I got home, I decided I was going to
try to bring an entrepreneurship class to Churchill, because that's what I'm interested in, and it could be something where students actually get to do what they are passionate about. An hour later, I had made a PowerPoint with the course overview, guest speakers for each unit, and field trips we could do. A week later, I pitched the class to Churchill's principal, and she gave me the go-ahead.
Tell me about the class you created.
The first 10 weeks of the course cover concepts like the business model canvas, finance, marketing, some legal aspects of business, and a lot of projects. The first week, students begin the experimental venture. The class gets into groups, and they have one week to create a venture and make money, with the goal of getting students into the habit of talking to customers and making sales. All the money that any students make during the course of the class is their money, and the school has nothing to do with it. In the next phase of the class, we have each student pitch their own idea to the entire class, and then they get into groups based on who wants to join in on what idea. From there, the classroom is an incubator space where the students come to school, put their backpacks down, sit together and to go and work on their business.
Are you also the teacher of the class?
Beth, my "co-founder," and I created the curriculum, and then we emailed professors at top universities around the country who are teaching courses in entrepreneurship, to get their input. From there we'd go through various iterations until we had all the lesson plans for the year. Now, there is technically a "teacher" for the course, who acts as more of a facilitator. But really, it's Beth and I who are talking to the students and doing most of the teaching, which is really cool.
Why do you feel it’s important for high school students to take this course? What skills do you think they gain from it?
I think it's really important for high school students to have access to entrepreneurship education. My goal isn't to have the class create a billion dollar company within the course of the year; my goal is to let students experience creating a company, which makes the process much less elusive if they decide they want to create a company three years from now, 10 years from now - they'll know how to do this. If people aren't scared about creating a business, then they're much more likely to actually go ahead and do it.
You took it upon yourself to create a class that is now going to be your legacy. The behind-the-scenes of that process couldn't have been easy.
I was never someone who just accepted that high school was a means to an end; that didn't make any sense to me. I didn't want to think that I could waste those four years, and then I'll start my life. Instead of waiting to study entrepreneurship in college, I wanted to start in high school. I also think it's important to have entrepreneurship education from a young age because not everyone goes to college. It's crucial that people have other options, and aren't settling for a minimum wage job if they don't go to college. You should understand that you can start your own company, and realize that there are tons of different ways to pursue life.
What's been your most proud moment of this accomplishment?
I felt really proud during back to school night. Beth and I got to speak to all the parents, and they were telling us about their kids being really excited for this entrepreneurship course. That was really spectacular for us to realize that we have created something that kids want to tell their parents about.
You've enjoyed so much success with this course, but what were some struggles you faced along the way?
It was hard from the beginning. The first person I brought the idea to at my school was not my principal, it was a teacher. He told me, “that's ridiculous. Teachers have tried to establish courses at Churchill and haven't been able to, and you're a student. Who do you think you are?” A couple of days later I pitched it to my principal, and it ended up working out. But from the beginning there were people who thought it was absurd that I even tried to do this. Of course, while teaching the class, it can be frustrating because you're a peer, and yet you want to be taken seriously. But, you don't want the students to feel like you think you're better than them. Balancing that is definitely difficult.
Did you ever find it difficult being a female in entrepreneurship?
When I was first starting with the class, I attended the National Student Leadership Convention at Yale for entrepreneurship. We were in groups with other students tackling a couple of projects, and I tend to take leadership roles so I gravitated towards a managerial role. Compared to many of the other groups, I was one of the only females in a leadership position. Some of the guys would say things that were unnecessary and it just showed how they weren't necessarily that comfortable with it. They'd say, "supreme leader," and things like that. And I was just like, okay, you know what? Whatever. I'm going to continue doing what I'm doing and stick to this leadership role. I think that as a woman you just have to understand that it's not fair that the guys who are in leadership roles don't get the same treatment; that the guys who you're leading are going to call you names like "bossy”. But you just have to accept it and roll with it. I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing.
"They'd say, "supreme leader," and things like that. And I was just like, okay, you know what? Whatever. I'm going to continue doing what I'm doing and stick to this leadership role."
Do you find it difficult to strike a balance between maintaining authority and avoiding being "bossy"?
Yeah, I think it is difficult to balance wanting to have authority and not wanting to be seen as being bossy as a woman. It's really important to be comfortable with introspection, and asking yourself “what kind of leader do I want to be? How can I make sure that I'm listening to everybody's views? Am I being a leader in a way that I think is appropriate?” And then checking in with people and asking, “hey, did I do this right? Is there some way I could improve?” You could ask candidly, “if you think that I'm being bossy, then talk to me about it, and let's have a conversation about it.”
Where do you see the entrepreneurship course going from here?
My goal for the entrepreneurship curriculum that we've created is to be able to bring it to other schools within Montgomery County, and then to other schools in Maryland, and eventually across the country.
Where do you see yourself a decade from now?
I definitely want to have my own company. I really like the idea of being the CEO. In terms of industries, I'm really interested in where technology coincides with other industries, such as education technology, health technology, or emerging technologies. I'm interested in artificial intelligence, too.