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5 Lessons We Can Learn From (Very) Young Entrepreneurs

A balled up piece of paper on a notebook with a pencil next to it.

We typically think that adults are the ones who do all the teaching. Yet there is much that we can learn from young people and apply to our own lives and careers if we simply pay attention.

Kids are super-creative, enthusiastic, honest, and willing to take risks—what more could you want in a mentor?

I’ve had the privilege to learn from some amazing young students while serving as a Spark Tank judge at Dwight School in Manhattan. Spark Tank is a unique incubator designed to nurture innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership for K-12 students. Students develop ideas for products, businesses, and philanthropic ventures with the goal of bringing them to market. Along the way, they present their ideas to The Dwight School Foundation Spark Tank judges for feedback, mentorship, and funding.

Here are five lessons I’ve learned from our young innovators that can benefit anyone, at any age:

Always remember why you started

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is the importance of purpose and passion. For many students, the genesis of their ideas is personal; they are driven to find a new or better solution to a problem that touches them or someone they love.

There is a fourth grader who needs frequent shots and devised a product to reduce fear of needles for children, and a high-school senior whose family of smokers propelled him to design an improved means of reducing secondhand smoke. Another senior began developing a personal safety tracking device when the issue of on-campus safety became a consideration in her college search.

Some students are passionate about global causes, such as a middle schooler who is creating a better-functioning, lower-cost prosthetic hand to help amputees, and another fourth grader who wants to help save endangered ocean animals by writing a children’s book, with proceeds to go to a like-minded charity. All of these young entrepreneurs remind us that it is important to have a personal connection to our work.

Talk to people about your ideas early

Oftentimes, in order to avoid embarrassment or rejection, we don't share some of our best ideas; but the young entrepreneurs I work with don’t hold anything back. Sharing your ideas with a colleague you respect can only help you to fine-tune them―or lead you in a different and better direction.

This was true for two sophomores who retooled their idea for an app after receiving insights from Spark Tank judges. Early feedback helped the duo avoid development barriers they would have certainly faced later on. Rather than giving up, the students embraced the comments, pivoted in another direction, and remained energized. Seek feedback early, reshape as needed, and don’t be afraid to shift gears.

Listen to criticism

It’s never easy to be challenged on an idea that you’re proud of. I have observed that young entrepreneurs listen carefully to critiques and answer difficult questions about aspects of their projects they had yet to consider; they really take feedback to heart. There are days when mentors challenge student prototypes and judges question if student plans for manufacturing or distribution are realistic. These are critiques adults need to hear from time to time, too.

Don’t be afraid to take risks

I have seen some of the youngest students in the Spark Tank program stand in front of a panel, present their ideas, and answer questions, all with confidence. These students know they have a big idea and possess the desire to do something great. Their confidence is impressive and their drive reminds us that without risk, there is no reward.

Reinvention is not only possible, it's necessary

Spark Tank nurtures young innovators who learn how to refine their concepts, present research, prototype, iterate, and market ideas. In addition to being driven, these students are flexible, nimble, and committed to ongoing learning. These traits are invaluable in the workplace.

As adults, we may be charged with reinventing ourselves due to circumstances beyond our control; at other times, we may opt for the change. Either way, we need to be able to act.

The young people I see in Spark Tank are not just on a path to finding careers, they are creating new ones that they believe can change the world. We can all take a lesson from that.

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About the Author | Dave Lindsey chairs The Dwight School Foundation Spark Tank Committee. He founded Defenders, the nation’s largest ADT Security dealer, and the Super Service Challenge, a nonprofit that has raised over $15 million for local charities.

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