You can’t teach entrepreneurship unless you’re truly willing to learn from failure

Note: This post was originally published on Quarter Zero’s Idea Board. As Chief Educator-in-Residence for Quarter Zero, I’ll be posting there every 2-3 weeks. I’ll also continue to post to this blog and, but possibly less frequently.

Five years ago, my high school student entrepreneurship program nearly folded.

We’d had a lot of failures in a row, including a “stress ball” company whose product oozed Ooblek, a “3D printing” company whose printed hearts were tacky and inconsistent, and a few other companies that never produced a thing.

I had an incredible, passionate business volunteer, Ishan, and the kids liked him, but even he couldn’t draw more than two to three kids to an after-school meeting. I was ready to write it off as an interesting experiment and get back to more traditional activities.

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But then Ishan persuaded those few kids to come up with a product — literally, any product — just to get themselves into that year’s Junior Achievement high school business competition. I was dubious, but with his help they launched Mustang Mail — an in-school personalized postcard service.

Those kids made a convincing commercial (yes, for postcards) and incredibly they pitched their way all the way to JA nationals, picking up a few more teammates along the way.

On the way back from that trip — I wasn’t along — Ishan and the students started brainstorming about what they would do next. He knew it was important to capitalize on their positive energy, and they came up with the idea for an app. The next year, numbers grew.

Fast-forward five years, and those students are doing incredible things.

A few are still running EduPass, the app they eventually developed. One is on a full-ride entrepreneurship scholarship at the University of St. Thomas — and running entrepreneurship programs in senior homes.

One participated in Quarter Zero while at Mounds View and recently took a break from college to co-found Runerra with a fellow Quarter Zero alumni he met during the program Catapult Incubator three years ago. He’s now a “Tech Star” and partnering with Target and Caribou Coffee. I saw him earlier this week as a panel speaker at this year’s first student entrepreneurship event, the Minnesota Council on Economic Education (MCEE) trade show.

It’s amazing to think about how far we’ve come — and how very close I was to giving up.

That part of the story is critically important, and it’s the part that too few people know. I almost gave up on those high school students and on teen entrepreneurship altogether.

We talk all the time in education about “failure,” about the growth mindset and resilience and how we have to learn from failure.

But how often do we actually do that? And how often do we let kids do that?

The answer is: Not often enough. When we try something new — like a tech tool, a teaching strategy or an after-school activity — and it doesn’t work in the first year or two, we are often quick to give up.

And when students try something new and it doesn’t work — like producing really disgusting, messy stress balls — they’re happy to walk away from it too.

The trouble is that those failures really are where learning takes place.

I didn’t know how to lead a high school entrepreneurship program at first. Few teachers do. It took trying over and over again and being mentored by Ishan for a few years and taking classes in entrepreneurship at the University of Pennsylvania to get me there.

Now I get it. I know what kinds of activities to use to inspire divergent thinking. I know what questions to ask, how to make the lean startup process fun and engaging, how to leverage the skills of a business mentor, and how to support the students through the low points and frustration.

That’s why I’m so excited to be the Chief Educator-in-Residence for Quarter Zero, one of the top programs for cultivating youth entrepreneurship nationwide.

In the next year — and hopefully beyond — I’ll be working with Quarter Zero to help more teachers gain the skills to foster youth entrepreneurship. And to persist when the going is tough.

Not everyone has an Ishan (or a Will, my current mentor), and not everyone has the time or energy to go back to graduate school to learn Lean Startup and design thinking methodology. But every teacher can learn the practices and strategies that develop an entrepreneurial mindset in students.

And believe me, it’s worth it. Nothing I’ve done in 25 years of teaching has been as rewarding as watching teenagers work together to actually develop solutions to real-world problems. Last year’s team, SoluPal, is actually combating plastic waste by developing water-soluble plastic shopping bags. How cool is that?

They don’t feel discouraged or powerless when they see problems in the community or the world; they see opportunities to make a difference.

This year, my school’s entrepreneurship group — StartUp MV — draws about 30 students every week, and more are involved behind the scenes. They’re out developing products — a writeable laptop case and biodegradable straws — interviewing customers, talking with suppliers and practicing their pitches.

One of these teams, EcoSlurp, won that MCEE Trade Show this week — not just because of their awesome ideas but because of their passion, their teamwork, and their ability to pitch themselves and their products.

They won’t all become entrepreneurs, but they’ve learned skills that will transfer into almost any career.

If I’d given up back in 2014, none of this would have happened. There would be no EduPass, no SoluPal, no EcoSlurp. No opportunity for our high school students to access the Twin Cities’ incredible entrepreneurship ecosystem. No MCEE Trade Show, in fact, because I helped develop it as a way for more Minnesota teens to showcase their venture ideas.

That would have been a mistake. I’m glad Ishan and a few students were there to help me stick with it. And I hope I’ll be able to help other teachers persist in the future.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom Visit  to learn more about opportunities for teen entrepreneurs.