It’s often said that we’re just that one idea away from something great. Fortunately for juniors at Lake Forest High School, they have the opportunity to dream up a product or service, be mentored through its fruition, and then ultimately have it funded as part of the school’s Business Incubator program.
“It’s truly unbelievable that our students have the chance to experience a real-life process of bringing a product or service to market,” says Lake Forest High School Foundation’s Business Incubator chair Amy Davidson. “Most kids wouldn’t get this until college, if at all.”
Created through a partnership between Lake Forest High School and the Lake Forest High School Foundation, the honors-level Business Incubator course was offered for the first time during the 2014-15 school year. Due to its overwhelming popularity and success, multiple sections of this course are now offered and taught by faculty members Phil LaScala and Joe Pulio.
Within the Business Incubator course, students are divided into “teams” and tasked to create a new business that answers a need they find, either in the marketplace or within their lives. Entrepreneurs and business experts, who generously volunteer their time as coaches and mentors, aid students through the year in all aspects of business development—including ideation, market analysis, financial modeling, web development, business law, and sales planning—to name just a few of the topics covered.
“The Business Incubator class is a tremendous learning opportunity for high school students that they don’t get through most traditional classes,” explains Catherine Driscoll, a volunteer coach. “While they’re learning solid business principles of profit and loss, expense management, operations, etc., they are also learning how to think on their feet. They have to be flexible and resilient, and willing to change direction if necessary. They also learn valuable team building skills and how to work with others toward a common goal.”
This year’s program began with 16 teams. One team dropped out early in the process. Of the remaining 15, four teams were asked to pitch their products and/or services to be funded to a panel of judges.
Similar to the format of ABC’s Shark Tank, the Lake Forest High School Foundation commits to funding a worthy team or teams. The team that received the largest grant at this year’s Pitch Night on May 25—$17,500—was Team Lightning Bug. Lightning Bug is an on-demand babysitting app that instantly provides reliable babysitters to parents with children ages 0-12 who want to go out, without the hassle of planning and finding a babysitter in advance. Madison DaValle, Landon Edwards, Grace Geraghty, John Norkus, and Clayton Wilbur—with the help of mentor Paul Best—were the juniors who made up the winning team.
“The mentors and coaches are essential to the success and future of this program,” explains Davidson. “These are the people who bring their tangible business world experience into the classroom.”
Mentors and coaches are mostly members of the community who often have ties to an up-and-coming, current, or past Incubator student, but this is not required. The mentor position is a one-year commitment where you are assigned to a group and you work with your team throughout the year in anticipation of Pitch Night. Mentors work at a pace that their work and personal lives allow. Students are encouraged to engage as much as possible with their mentor, but realize it can be difficult to coordinate the busy lives of students and adults.
Coaches make a one-week commitment to teach a specific aspect of the curriculum. This position is very defined and the faculty and Foundation liaison do their best to match a coach with subject matter that makes most sense given their background.
“I first became aware of this program when my niece Emma made it to Pitch Night,” says program coach Craig Shields. “I hadn’t planned on participating beyond teaching ideation. However, I was so impressed with the kids in general that I felt compelled to jump in. I thought that they were solving a real problem, and it was really exciting to see the team take the concept and run with it. Win or lose on Pitch Night, this experience is something that will stay with them. They are getting an MBA-level education at the high school level.”
With this year’s Pitch Night in the books, Davidson is hopeful that more stellar members of the community will come forward as volunteers to keep this program alive and thriving.
“As happy as we are for the groups who present at Pitch Night, we are thrilled with all who choose to take this class and learn from the real-life scenarios presented throughout the year. Some complete the course excited to dive into the entrepreneurial arena and others realize they want nothing to do with it. What a gift to learn at such a young age.”
To learn more or to apply to become a mentor or coach, visit lfhsfoundation.org.