Entrepreneurial Students Find Their Voices

Laura Boyd Smidt, life-long educator, talks with former students, Aarushi Dubey, INCubatoredu Alum, 2018, University of Maryland College Park & Cher Jiang, INCubatoredu Alum, 2018, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and reflects on inspiring and important student growth.

Laura.LBS (2)Unexpected Path

I never wanted to be a teacher. Growing up and even in college, it was not on my radar. However, life can take you on journeys you aren’t expecting with experiences that you never dreamed of. I took an unexpected journey and spent 15 years teaching. Often folks will ask me about the experience, wondering what was the thing that kept me coming back year after year. A typical response for many educators and a very valid one is the “light bulb” moment. Yes, I had those, but honestly, it was never the curriculum or content breakthroughs that made me sign the yearly contract. It was much more personal than that. It was the student voices that fed me and it is those voices that I cherish.

Nurturing Important Skills

A few years ago, Google published Project Aristotle. It showed that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. These skills are “soft” not technical.  I had the pleasure of teaching entrepreneurship and nurturing my students in the development of these soft skills, and importantly, to find their voices.

2015-05-02 Barrington - CleatGuard - Final Pitch 01 (2)-1Communicating clearly and feeling self-assured doesn’t come naturally or easily to many students. Fortunately, the skill can be nurtured and practiced in student entrepreneurship education, as entrepreneurs must be able to communicate clearly and persuasively. I provided my students a safe place to hone these professional skills and develop their confidence in a challenging rigorous environment. Students learned to pitch their ideas, ask tough questions and give constructive feedback to their peers. 

'It Was My Chance to Talk'

I recently caught up with one of my students, Aarushi Dubey. She was a veryAarushiHeadshot shy young lady when she began her entrepreneurial journey. She shared, As a young girl, when I was growing up, there were a lot of situations where I didn't feel comfortable speaking out, probably because I was a girl and on top of that, I am a woman of color.” I recall Aarushi really struggled with presentations and navigating group collaborations. She even considered dropping the course. Thankfully, I watched her develop into the confident college sophomore she is today. Aarushi told me, “I wanted to speak and share what I was thinking, but I did not have the guts to do that, unless I was being pushed to, but with sharebacks and pitches I was being pushed into that situation almost weekly. And those helped me so much because it was my chance to talk. Those pitches were my way of getting over my fear of public speaking. They are probably the sole reason that I am not as scared now if I have to publicly speak in the presence of a hundred plus people.”  Aarushi overcame her fears, found her voice and thrived.

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The Importance of Starting with a Question

Often, students do have a voice and simply need to silence their voice of judgment. Cher Jiang, another former student and college sophomore reflected on her INCubatoredu experience and shared, “A mistake I made a lot was not giving other ideas a fair chance and just leading with assumptions. So I would point to something in a slideshow that I didn't expect, and say,  ‘I don't think that's going to work.’ But I learned it's good to start with the question instead and ask, ‘What did you have in mind when you put this in?’ Having that openness to other people's ideas, and learning to trust and rely on other people can make you more productive— that was also a big part of my growth.” Entrepreneurship education provides the perfect environment for social emotional learning to flourish even for educators. I am still working on my VOJ!


The Power of Constructive Interaction

Forbes recently published an article detailing the top 10 skills recruiters are looking for in 2021. Not surprisingly, flexibility made the list. Entrepreneurship students identify a problem they want to solve, do research, build a solution, test the solution, rinse and repeat. This iterative process often results in pivots which are challenging for young students. Having the confidence to voice one’s concerns and knowing how to articulate them to your group is new to many high school students.  Cher recalled, “ we just lost interest in that idea, but we didn't realize it was okay to pivot at that point. And, it just felt like we were stuck with a not very interesting idea for the rest of the year. So I think we lost morale. And no one really knew how to initiate the conversation of, ‘We don't like this idea.’ because we didn’t want to hurt the person's feelings. We were muddled as to what direction we could even go in.”

Course Correction...

I recall this student team coming to me that day, not knowing how to initiate the conversation. I asked a lot of questions and listened to their thoughts. I reminded them that pivoting is part of the entrepreneurial journey. Changing direction based on what you have learned is what you are supposed to do!  In fact, entrepreneurs rely on this ability to ensure that the business idea addresses the problem they’re passionate about solving (falling in love with the problem vs the solution!). Having the flexibility to change course is what makes one resilient (another Forbes top ten skill). Afterward, Cher recalled realizing, “finding a way to balance where everyone was happy, everyone was excited by the work we were doing, could actually be more sustainable in the long run—getting people engaged rather than telling people what to do. So being flexible in that way was something I needed to work on.”  Cher’s team came together that year and placed 2nd in the final pitch event at The Academies of Loudoun. They silenced their voices of judgment, conducted research, analyzed the data, had tough conversations, demonstrated flexibility and resilience, pivoted and iterated. They found success when they found their voices.

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Voice as Foundational

Observing students finding their voices through entrepreneurship education was the highlight of my teaching career. Listening to a student advocate effectively within their group, deliver an elevator pitch, answer questions being thrown at them by “sharks” and walk off a stage with a smile on their face is a gift that continues to feed me. I know that my entrepreneurship students are prepared for life and its unexpected journeys. They have their voices.

Laura Boyd Smidt is a recently retired teacher from Loudoun County, VA. She taught a variety of marketing courses and served as the CTE Department Chair at Freedom High School. She retired from the Academies of Loudoun, Academy of Engineering & Technology, Entrepreneurship DE INCubatoredu Educator.

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