Perhaps you recently watched 10-year-old Jack Bonneau, from Broomfield, Colorado, on ABC-TV’s Shark Tank, show pitching his lemonade stand and marketplace business and picking up a $50,000 low-interest loan from billionaire venture capitalist Chris Sacca.
First, kudos all around -- to Jack, his parents, his teachers, his mentors and his principal -- for all the dedication they invested and the direction they gave him to land this deal and attract the publicity that has followed.
But, here's the big question: Should we be surprised by such prodigious business acumen? Afterall, the lesson here seems that students in primary and secondary schools across the United States are much more capable than many of us believe.
In fact, Jack was incredibly poised in front of the show's entrepreneurial giants, who also included Lori Greiner, Kevin O'Leary, Mark Cuban and Barbara Corcoran, who all declined to invest. “I wasn’t really nervous at all,” Jack told me, in an interview.
The student said he was equally unfazed by the reasons some Sharks gave for turning down the opportunity to make a deal with him: He should be focusing 100 percent on school instead of managing a growing enterprise.
“I understand where they were coming from. I respect their opinion and took it to heart and listened to it,” Jack said. “But it wasn’t too hard to hear because I know I have a good balance in my life.”
I believe Jack is on to something here. Entrepreneurship might not be a fit for every kid, but why not have schools teach everything from math to civics through the lens of building and running a business? For those of us who are entrepreneurs, looking back at our own schooling, wouldn't middle school have been that much more engaging if we had learned how to build a business that we cared about?
Especially nowadays, when that traditional job, the paper route, and other long-time opportunities for kids seem to be disappearing, why not teach entrepreneurship in school?
As Jack's example shows, kids are naturally entrepreneurial; a commercial mindset and concepts such as profits, losses and expenses, or risk-taking and problem-solving, are often part of their mindset. If students are given the right experiences and provided by their parents and teachers with the right perspective, the skills that are needed will develop.
All that's needed is to allow students to get comfortable identifying issues and solutions, taking chances and experiencing failure.
Jack, who two years ago, when he was 8, launched Jack’s Stands & Marketplaces at a local farmers market, is now a sixth-grade student at STEM Magnet Lab in Adams 12 Five Star Schools, known in Colorado for encouraging students to start their own businesses and use their passions and ideas to solve problems. Adams 12's business mantra “fail fast and pivot” is an example of the right mentality.
Hoping to earn $400 for the Lego Death Star model he wanted, Jack made a profit of $900 with his lemonade stand in his first three months. He then expanded, So far, his revenues have topped $100,000. He now operates five lemonade stands in four towns in the Denver suburbs.
Scaling the proverbial lemonade stand
Jack said that he hopes to expand in Colorado as well as to Detroit and New Orleans. He already has contacts in those cities and plans to travel there to teach young colleagues how to greet customers and account for sales and track inventory. He’ll also provide his young contractors with supplies, including stands; with permitting and licensing help; and with advice on multiple business topics, like how to be an entrepreneur and gain confidence.
He said he added a marketplace concept to his business to encourage other kidpreneurs and give them a venue to sell wares such as organic dog treats, handcrafted mugs and bowls and a "food separator" for young people.
Jack founded his business with a $1,000 loan -- since repaid -- from his parents. Later, he borrowed $5,000 from Denver's Young Americans Bank, which helps finance entrepreneurs. He’s since paid down that loan by about 60 percent.
After hearing Jack's pitch to expand the marketplace idea, Sacca, an early investor in Twitter, Uber and Kickstarter, offered a $50,000 loan at 2 percent interest, to be drawn down in $10,000 increments.
Other provisions Sacca specified were that Jack start a video podcast to show others his age how his business operates, as well as earn some advertising revenue. Already, Jack uses his website to allow 18 other young entrepreneurs to schedule a time and day to operate his drink stands or marketplaces.
Incidentally, Jack saves a third of his profits, while another third is for spending money, and the final third goes to charity. Last year, he donated what he estimated to be a sum between $700 and $800 to the nonprofit New Story to help its leaders hit a goal of building 100 homes in 100 days for Haitian families displaced by their country's 2010 earthquake.
Schooling for entrepreneurial prodigies
Clearly, Jack Bonneau is a student deeply involved in his learning, as are his parents: His father, Steve Bonneau, is a serial entrepreneur, as well as one of the founders of his son’s school; he is also involved with a foundation for gifted children.
Jack’s amazing story, moreover, shows that schools can be effective laboratories for fostering young entrepreneurs. One of the district’s principals, Kellie Lauth, noted that, although Jack clearly ran with the project, much of it was begun in his classroom during the school day. “We do problem-based learning as our instructional core,” Lauth told me. “Students involved in this type of learning present viable solutions to problems before an authentic panel of experts.
"Sometimes this means a project that gives back to their community, either local or global," she added. "And, other times, it means, as it did in Jack's case, starting a company, which I also believe gives back, in a variety of ways."
Jack said the project helped him with math and economics -- a not-surprising goal at a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) magnet school -- as well as public speaking. “Knowing I was going to be on Shark Tank made me focus on that,” he said.
His father noted that experiences like his son’s business are becoming more important to develop as part of students' formal educations because jobs that have been traditionally held by young people, such as paper deliverer, fast food cook and cashier -- even babysitter -- these days increasingly go to adults.
"This is an exercise for us in changing the economic trajectory of our students,” the elder Bonneau said. “It's not enough anymore to say, ‘We will make you better at school.’ We have to make kids better at life. They have to be equipped to compete.
“With this project, you learn to get an idea, get it off the ground, evaluate it, and if it sucks, kill it and try again,” the father added. “That’s called fast thinking. And that’s vital today.”
Just as an aside, Jack’s school has produced a pipeline that currently includes four student-run limited liability companies, students with ten patents pending and students who have written several books.
If there is a sour note in this kidpreneur's story at all, it's that his experience cannot be replicated widely, due to the resistance that exists in so many school districts to out-of-the-box learning projects and curriculums.
As the elder Bonneau said, "We would love to be able to work with other schools on projects, but it's a challenge because so many of them don't have the right mindset."
Perhaps these schools should look at Jack and his classmates as future competition for their own students. Everyone would benefit.