Education through entrepreneurship

LITE challenges high school students with a new kind of problem solving. Leaving traditional teaching strategies in the classroom, the organization puts students back in the community to launch social venture ideas to improve the city—and to learn valuable skills along the way.
Back in 2013, Hardy Farrow noticed his government and economics students were frustrated with creating hypothetical business models and solving made-up problems. Farrow, a Teach for America corps member at Power Center Academy in Hickory Hill, decided to make the problems real and make the solutions meaningful.
 
“I came into the classroom and noticed students didn’t have the skills they needed for the workforce and college. They were disenfranchised from their education. It seemed they were irritated by the class work of developing business plans without actualizing them. I asked the students to tell me about a problem they saw in the community and told them that we would try a different approach, designing out solutions to help them launch their ideas,” Farrow said.
 
So he embraced a “learn by doing” philosophy and helped students incubate their own ideas through an entrepreneurial curriculum, seed investment, and mentor matching. The ultimate goal was to make students more prepared for college or small business by having them actually try out ideas in the same way a business would in the marketplace.
 
What began as a classroom assignment has now grown into a formal organization as Farrow, 25, takes his inventive approach to building student skills from the classroom to the nonprofit arena. The overall goal of LITE Memphis (Let’s Innovate through Education) is to build these essential skills while equipping high school students of all socioeconomic backgrounds with the leadership skills they need to impact their communities.
 
In the 2013/14 school year, students competed against each other by designing budgets, marketing strategies, and five-year timelines. Over the course of 13 weeks, Farrow worked out a curriculum with the students and offered up $1,000 in seed money as well as a connection to a mentor in the community. In turn, the students learned how to research, set goals and market their projects. Utilizing a panel of community judges to assess the ideas, the best projects were chosen, among them a dance marathon, an airport revitalization strategy, and a literacy campaign.
 
“From the spring through the fall of 2014, the students hosted their own community events, including doing the marketing to bring in their audiences. And with great success, each student met their goals, as measured by the amount of money they raised for their cause or the number of people who attended their events,” said Farrow.

Innovation in Action
Courtney Richmond was passionate about dance and cancer research. Farrow challenged her to find a way to bring those two seemingly disparate ideas together. Her solution? A dance marathon event at The Kroc Center that impacted over 150 people.  The event brought a number of different dance groups together and resulted in nearly $1,000 in donations; all proceeds were donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
 
This fall, Richmond is headed to Middle Tennessee State University to study biology and chemistry, with hopes of returning to Memphis to work at St. Jude.
 
Kylan Kidd was an all-A student from Whitehaven. Farrow said Kidd was really focused academically and set a goal to bring his writing skills to “above grade” so that he would be able to communicate effectively with professionals in the business world. Kidd’s project was aimed at revitalizing the airport through a social awareness campaign. He was matched with Chad Bowman of the City of Memphis Division of Planning as a mentor. Kidd marketed his idea, Innovation through Aviation, and held a focus group session at the University of Memphis. The resulting community discussions led to a proposal for a pop-up bistro in conjunction with the local airport authority. 
 
Kidd was accepted to all five colleges to which he applied and will be a freshman at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga in the fall with a “Chattanooga Yes” scholarship. Through his LITE project he saw first-hand how his ideas could come to life and he will continue his passion for business development by majoring in business.
 
Literacy among pre-school and elementary school children was the issue that Nikkia Brown wanted to address with her LITE project. The idea she developed was centered on hosting donation drives to secure books for children, especially those in low-income areas. Her preschool literacy drives have impacted more than 50 families. Additionally, Brown’s book drives have secured enough books—over 350—to start a library this fall at Power Center Academy Elementary School.  She is now campaigning to raise an additional $1,500 to buy more books for another elementary school.
 
Andrew Bartolotta, Marketing and Communications Coordinator for Leadership Memphis, has served as a LITE mentor and has seen the long-term impact LITE has had on students. “Encouraging students to develop and expand their entrepreneurial skills will better prepare them for post-secondary success. It was exciting to see that, as a group, these three students were accepted into 100 percent of the schools to which they applied and received $155,000 in scholarships offers,” Bartolotta said.
 
Now following his own advice, Farrow is launching his idea into the community. As his students are preparing to leave for college, Farrow is transitioning his classroom project into a nonprofit organization. He is seeking partnerships with area schools and businesses, establishing a board of directors, developing a fundraising model and forming relationships with local foundations.
 
His base of operation is an office at Hutchison School. From there he will run his nonprofit on a full-time basis while teaching part-time, two classes per semester, and helping the school with their Entrepreneurship Society. Teaching more than traditional curriculum, Farrow will still be demonstrating that plugging students into social venture projects is a great idea whose time has come.
 
He wants to continue preparing young adults for the workforce by helping them learn to goal-set, to be more organized and to become creative problem solvers. But he also hoped to deepen their love of, and commitment to, their Memphis community.  Through LITE, Hardy is building a local workforce with the skills businesses need, but also a network of young, educated professionals who want to live and lead in Memphis.
 
Farrow’s success with LITE hasn’t gone unnoticed. His project recently won national recognition, receiving one of five National Innovation Awards from Teach for America. Farrow was also awarded the Sue Lehmann award, recognizing him as one of the top 100 best American teachers in their second year of teaching for his instruction in the classroom and his work in the community.
 
 

Read more articles by Emily Adams Keplinger.

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