After lots of brainstorming, planning and renovating, the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center of Williamson County Schools is finally open and ready to feed the minds of high school students with a knack for business.
Discussions about a new entrepreneurship program began about two years ago, and since then, those ideas have taken shape in the annex by Franklin High School.
WCS Superintendent Jason Golden said the EIC meets the three overarching goals of the school district’s strategic plan — to “invest in team quality and excellence,” to “improve student-centered operational support systems” and to “prepare students for the future.”
“This is a system, this is an entity, this is a facility, these are staff who are going to prepare our students for the future,” he said. “We really work to innovate here in Williamson County Schools. … If you’re standing still, you’re falling back, and so this is a function, this is a focus we’re going to have to help our students continue to move forward.”
How the program works
All WCS high school students are eligible to apply for the EIC program. Starting Friday, the center will welcome 130 students, selected from those who applied last winter.
EIC Executive Director Kari Miller said applicants go through an interview process to see what entrepreneurship means to them and to determine which students would fit best in the EIC.
The first of its kind in Williamson County, the program will offer two courses immediately — Entrepreneurship and Innovation 1 and Entrepreneurship and Innovation Practicum. Entrepreneurship and Innovation 2 will be available next fall.
Entrepreneurship and Innovation 1, or EI 1, will foster students’ professional skills and break students up into groups of three to develop and launch a business idea.
“They’ll have the opportunity in January and in May to actually ask for funds to help launch their business,” Miller said. “So, not only is it a program that’s provided to them, they’re going to have an unbelievable opportunity to actually get some funding to get started.”
The practicum, on the other hand, will further guide students already operating a business.
High schoolers have the opportunity to take these courses for class credit during the normal school day or participate in workshops in the afternoon and evening as extracurricular activities. Stephanie Thomas, who will teach the morning courses, said she will oversee the day-to-day classwork, and students will also receive help from business mentors, who will meet with their groups at least once a week, and a list of on-call industry experts.
While the courses take a “Shark Tank” model of helping students establish their specific business ideas, Thomas said her job is also to teach skills that will help students succeed in other business endeavors.
“Not only is this about developing a business, but it’s more so about the soft skills like how to communicate, how to gather data, how to send an email,” she said.
Where do the mentors come from?
Tailoring the students’ business models to their individual ideas is where the mentors come in. These mentors were procured largely by a private partnering company called The Catalyst Network, a group of business leaders formed specifically to promote entrepreneurship in WCS.
According to The Catalyst Network President Jay Chawan, a board was created to initially begin connecting the schools to the business world, and as the idea of the EIC shaped up to be more than just an entrepreneurship class, the nonprofit network was established to support and help create the elaborate program by finding and onboarding mentors, fundraising to appropriately furnish the new facility and helping to provide the necessary equipment.
Chawan explained, as entrepreneurship is not something WCS has included before, they didn’t quite have the funding or resources to give the facility and the program what it needed. That’s where the public-private partnership came in.
“Just teaching entrepreneurship with educators is not going to be enough,” Chawan said. “You really do want to talk to somebody who is in a business today or has done that business. That’s that priceless knowledge that they can glean from that connection.”
The renovated annex serves as collaborative workspace
The board also helped fund and craft the EIC to look more like a coworking space as opposed to a bunch of classrooms.
“It would be very difficult for the schools to outfit it at that level,” Chawan said. “And we knew as business leaders that, if you really want to attract the students to this, it’s got to look different. It’s got to be different.”
And it is different. The annex, which formerly served as the Franklin campus of Columbia State Community College, is outfitted with three meeting rooms with white boards and flat screens, one — soon to be two — private discussion cubby and a maker’s space with desks, computers and peg boards, all surrounded by a general collaboration area both upstairs and downstairs with coffee tables, armchairs and desks.
Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson recalled the building’s history, explaining that it had landed in the hands of the state. The county spent about $3 million to retrieve the property and, with financial help from The Catalyst Network, turn it into the community asset it is now.
He said the EIC will help prepare the Williamson County workforce to continue to attract businesses and jobs to the area.
“When new businesses move into our area, they know our area better than we do oftentimes when they’re coming to town. They know what kind of market, they know what kind of people that are here,” Anderson said.
“This facility will take us in that next direction. To you young people that have an opportunity to go into a deeper dive, learn how a business works and learn how to keep it from failing. … The first two to three years are the hardest to get a business up and running. This facility will help you.”
Students look forward to being the ‘guinea pigs’
Franklin High School seniors Christian Darr and Sam Walsh are optimistic as they prepare to be two of the first students in the program. Both students will take EI 1 this year.
“I always wanted to find a way to get involved in entrepreneurship; I just wasn’t exactly sure how,” Darr said.
“So, when I heard about this, this was a great way for me to kind of get myself into this, because I wasn’t sure exactly where else I could get this kind of knowledge, this kind of experience.”
Walsh added that he’s hoping to get a head start by benefiting the community with a product without first waiting for a college degree, though he does plan to go to college.
They both wish to pursue engineering degrees, and Darr intends to move on to a master’s in business administration. They hope the EIC program will give them a leg up in these endeavors.
“Learning the ropes and building a business (is) something I’ve never really done before, and because it’s so new, it makes me excited to try all the different opportunities that this will provide,” Darr said.
Golden said he too hopes this program will better prepare students planning to pursue business in college and will help them stand out among their peers.
“This is unique in so many ways because this is something that our students have needed — something they didn’t even know they needed — but now that opportunity is here for them to start getting a grasp of what it takes to run a business,” he said. “One of the most common majors in college is business. … And what we hope to do here is prepare those students who are going onto college for the next step so that they’re a little ahead of their colleagues in college, but we’re also preparing students who are running businesses right now — right now — to do something powerful so that their businesses will be a success.”
The Catalyst Network is holding a fundraiser on Thursday, Aug. 22 at the EIC at 5:30 p.m. to further support the program. Chawan said the Network still needs volunteers to help with the after-school portion of the program.
For more information on the EIC and The Catalyst Network, visit eiccatalystnetwork.org.