TELLURIDE – Cameron Powell stood at the front of the classroom, asking students for straight, no-nonsense answers. The students were happy to oblige, speaking over one another and addressing their teacher by his first name.
“Cameron, I can’t see anyone having the problem this company says people have, and can’t see anyone spending all this money to purchase a product to fix the problem,” asked Tristan Purdy, who was reviewing her notes on her laptop.
“Good thinking,” Powell responded. “Now, how well do you think this startup can bring their product to market, and what competitive edge do you see the company having in the market?”
While this sounds like a college level marketing class, it’s not. This is a typical day in Powell’s business startup class at Telluride High School, which ends its debut semester later this week.
The class partners with the Telluride Venture Accelerator, the local nonprofit offering startup capital and business consulting organization for small regional businesses. Each year, TVA invites startups to Telluride to work with its business consultation team. Along with teaching the high school class, Powell also works as a business coach for TVA.
Throughout the first semester, Powell has asked his students to evaluate business proposals sent to TVA. Powell, using his own firsthand experience working with business startups, aims to teach his students real-world critical thinking skills about business models and about how t develop and identify the competitive edge.
TVA Director Thea Chase said the class has served multiple purposes to the students, TVA and the community. “TVA's mission is to build the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Telluride region,” she said. “This doesn't happen overnight. In fact, it can take many years. This is why working with the school system is extremely important. Nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit and introducing concepts early on can contribute substantially to achieving our long-term goal.”
Chase added that the students were fundamental in helping TVA evaluate applicants for the accelerator’s 2014 crop of startup applicants.
For Powell, the purpose of the class was to teach a new generation of thinkers.
“I tell my students that we’re in a changing economy, where jobs will be more service-oriented and automated,” Powell said. “You can hope to get ‘real jobs’ where you apply, have a face-to-face interview and then they hire you, but the fact is, a great many jobs are created by small businesses and startup entrepreneurs.”
Understanding the structure of a business and how it can compete in the open market, he added, is vital in today’s uncertain job market and changing economic landscape.
Many of the evaluated proposals request funding for digital products like software applications and online services. Powell’s students are quick to object to many of the proposals, saying the market for most of the products is saturated, and that the proposals’ authors have failed to sufficiently develop a competitive edge.
“In my class, my students learn the importance of developing and identifying a competition and an edge,” said Powell. “This is a concept that’s not well understood even by many adults.”
And, like a college course, the majority of the students’ grades are assigned at the end of the semester, during a final presentation with a Powerpoint outlining a business model, mimicking real-world venture capital presentations.
But despite the amount the students have been learned about real-world venture capital presentations and reviewing proposals, the class has had some hiccups during its debut semester, including an assignment calling for students to develop a business idea of their own.
“It’s not easy under any circumstances for someone at any age to come up with viable business ideas,” said Powell.
“When they did come up with ideas for businesses, they weren’t necessarily startup ideas,” he said, of the students’ offerings. Rather, “they were just ideas for small business ownership and didn’t feature, say, a new technology, but rather a food cart. My students aren’t trying to execute these ideas into real businesses,” he said, “so there’s a loss in innovative drive” that’s apparent, say, in TVA startup owners.
Still, said Powell, aside from some minor wrinkles in the curriculum, he’s satisfied with the debut semester. He’s even heard from some of his students’ parents, who have expressed interest in taking a similar class.
“A very large percentage of the adults who've heard about the class have had the same response,” he said, of “‘I want to take that class!’ And so I have been contemplating offering some of the same content and structure to local businesspeople, perhaps facilitated through a local organization.”
Powell encourages any adults interested in pursuing a business startup-related course of study to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.