Dr JD LaRock of Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The…

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Dr JD LaRock of Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System

Expand entrepreneurship education to all middle and high schools. As we talk to constituents each year, we hear thousands of times some iteration of the phrase: “I wish I had NFTE in my school.” Why isn’t it in every school? Shouldn’t that be the case, especially in America, where we value self-efficacy, self-motivation, and self-fulfillment? Doing so would absolutely lead to a tidal wave of economic productivity, inclusion, and societal success.

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview J.D. LaRock, J.D., Ed.D., President and CEO at Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE)

Dr. J.D. LaRock is President and CEO of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a global nonprofit organization that activates the entrepreneurial mindset and builds startup skills in young people from underserved communities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I was leading Massachusetts’ workforce development authority under Governor Charlie Baker. A key task of our agency was providing educational services to youth in the juvenile justice system.

One of our most successful programs involved entrepreneurship education. Young people who were incarcerated cleverly used the web and shipping to actually launch businesses — footwear refurbishment, culinary food service, and more — from behind the wall! That really stuck with me. I was intrigued by these young people from distressed communities and circumstances who have special, innate skills and talents to survive. These very skills make them particularly oriented to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship education sparked their passion and helped them discover their value in meaningful ways. They could see a pathway to life after lockup.

When I was approached to become CEO of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), I knew it was a special opportunity to go beyond the state level to do this work nationally and globally. NFTE is a global nonprofit that has been an authority in the entrepreneurship education space since 1987, working with middle, high school, and young adult learners to ignite an entrepreneurial mindset through project-based learning experiences that empower them to own their futures

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ll choose one of my most consistently interesting experiences as CEO of NFTE, which is interacting with our young business owners. It’s particularly exciting to meet alumni, such as Jonathan Ovadia, who have graduated from NFTE programs and are now quite successful.

A decade or so ago, Jonathan was a high school student in Miami Beach. He participated in a NFTE program and founded his first company, a T-shirt business. Though he went to college, Jonathan told me he found the mindset and passion for business that he gained from NFTE to be more useful. He decided to pivot into virtual reality gaming.

This summer, Jonathan gave me a tour of Aexlab, the virtual reality technology studio where he leads business development. He and his brother, Albert, co-founded the company with Elizabeth Clark.

Now, here is this young man in his 30s with a cutting-edge business, nearly 40 people on his team, working on releasing Vail — what’s expected to be one of the most popular virtual reality games on the market. It’s amazing to see how far he has come in such a short period of time. His is an example of the many incredible stories of our alumni.

What I have learned from those stories is that NFTE sparks something really special in many individuals that lasts a lifetime and helps lead them to a life of achievement and creative fulfillment. I, our team, and NFTE’s supporters are blessed to be a small part of their stories.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Well, we have expanded support for entrepreneurs of various ages in many ways.

Our Exploring Careers program gives students in grades 5–9 insight about their future by guiding them through self-exploration, as well as career and technical education career clusters.

During the pandemic, many people found themselves unemployed, underemployed, or concerned about their financial future, so we launched a program to help them relaunch their careers. Our new Start It Up! program grew out of that effort and now helps education and workforce development organizations deliver engaging entrepreneurship education and effective skill-building programming. Postsecondary students learn the pillars of entrepreneurship, preparing them to start a small business and pass the Entrepreneurship and Small Business Certification Exam through Certiport.

Our ESB prep course readies high schoolers for certification, as well.

Our student reach in the United States is nearly 40,000 students — mostly middle and high school youth — but our presence is felt in 30 U.S. states and 21 total countries. A new division drives this endeavor to lead the global movement for equitable access to entrepreneurship education. Through it, we introduce the entrepreneurial mindset to as many teens and young adults, mostly community college students, as we possibly can — wherever they are in the world. We know the desire for entrepreneurship education isn’t limited to a grade level or country. There is need everywhere.

Because NFTE learners are primarily from highly under-resourced communities, there is educational value and financial freedom in the mindset we help them develop. That’s what makes this work exciting. We know entrepreneurship education empowers people, disrupts, and transforms, and is vital to ending worldwide economic disparity.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

For much of the past decade, I’ve worked as a teacher, scholar, and university administrator focused on experiential learning and the future of work. I’ve served as education policy director for former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, helping him author a K-12 education law that enabled turnarounds for low-performing school districts and helped the state win $250 million through the U.S. Department of Education’s “Race to the Top Program.” I also served as senior education advisor to the late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy and chaired Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s Commission on Digital Innovation and Lifelong Learning. And I am currently president and CEO of NFTE.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

Rather than a rating, let’s identify the opportunity. Our educational system had ground to cover and gaps to close prior to the pandemic, but now it is really hurting. There is no question that the last two years have led to a significant decline in student achievement and engagement. We need to do everything we can to quickly rebound and push forward in new and innovate ways. This post-COVID time is a real opportunity to do things better and will require an all-hands-on-deck effort with local, state, and federal officials joining forces with district leaders and nonprofit organizations like ours to give students new, better, and engaging ways to learn. The federal government’s jobs-challenge initiative to generate high-wage opportunities, particularly for those from under-resourced communities, benefits from what nonprofits like NFTE already know. Multiple career pathways work. Cutting-edge entrepreneurship education must be part of the solution.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

One area is the growing number of initiatives to incorporate collaboration and group learning into our educational system.

Secondly, there is more emphasis on connecting students to experiences that help them discover their passions and explore college and career choices.

There is a greater investment in hands-on, experiential learning that enriches education. That is something NFTE learners enjoy because of American Student Assistance and other community supporters.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ support for equitable access to career-connected learning reminds me of something else that has been quite positive for our student population. There is a voracious appetite for educational remedies that break the cycle of low minority representation in high-tech, high-growth, high-paying jobs.

Finally, I find it profoundly moving that our community leaders and private sector corporations take seriously their roles as good community stewards. EY, the Citi Foundation, Santander, Intuit, and others provide nonprofits like ours with skills-based volunteers who mentor, coach, host workplace field trips, and give other investments needed to build the next generation of highly skilled employees and entrepreneurs.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

Expand entrepreneurship education to all middle and high schools. As we talk to constituents each year, we hear thousands of times some iteration of the phrase: “I wish I had NFTE in my school.” Why isn’t it in every school? Shouldn’t that be the case, especially in America, where we value self-efficacy, self-motivation, and self-fulfillment? Doing so would absolutely lead to a tidal wave of economic productivity, inclusion, and societal success.

Dramatically expand high-impact mentorship for students. Perhaps the most underutilized strategy for helping students reach their full potential is quality mentorship that contributes to their growth and development. We realize the value of involving diverse entrepreneurs and business professionals in our work. Every year our corporate partners’ teams — PayPal, MetLife, Zuora, Mary Kay, SAP, Bank of the West, Moody’s — contribute thousands of volunteer hours, making a major impact on our students. This exposure can lead to upward mobility. Harvard researchers found youth who grew up in disadvantaged neighborhoods could see a boost in their future salary by building a network of friends with high incomes.

Require financial literacy curricula in schools. CNBC recently shared a report that found more than half of adults in America are financially illiterate because they were never taught how to manage their money. Understanding how to successfully navigate finances is critical knowledge for students to have as they graduate high school — whether they are starting a new job and have to file taxes for the first time, are interested in attending college and need to know how loans work, or want to start a business. At present, only 15 states require students to take a financial literacy course to graduate. More states should follow suit and take action to require financial literacy curricula in schools, and NFTE can be a meaningful part of this — helping youth think about wealth creation and ownership early on in life.

Expand alternative and non-traditional career pathways. College is expensive, and as educators, we are seeing more students shift away from attending a four-year university and instead opt for community college, the trades, or non-traditional pathways such as alternative credentialing programs. Schools should empower students to explore all options and increase access to the trades by offering classes, after-school clubs, community partnerships and more.

Address postsecondary school funding. The student loan and Pell Grant systems are outdated and do not accurately address the needs of all students. While President Biden’s recent grant forgiveness announcement is welcome by many, it does not help students of color and fails to address the root issue of the broken system. Among other things, Pell Grants cannot be used to fund alternative credentialing or short-term training programs, even those offered by community colleges.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

In a given year, 60% of the youth we serve are Black and Latinx, and 43% identify as female. They have strong interest in STEM. We see the excitement our youth have for discovery and creative problem-solving. In fact, NFTE students ideate every year about how to advance the UN’s Global Sustainability Goals and preserve our planet for future generations.

Yet research shows minorities on the journey toward securing STEM education and jobs face deterrents along the way. Ways to improve this include:

Regular opportunities in and outside of the broader academic program for students to learn futureproof skills such as coding, global thinking, digital literacy, and communication. For example, our Startup Tech students in grades 5–12 learn to code, create app-based businesses, and build marketable digital solutions. All are relevant skills because the future of work is now.

Pulling back the curtain between students and real-world STEM. Increase student exposure to data mining, cloud computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence and the vast array of STEM industries. We experience those heart-warming lightbulb moments when our students and teachers interact with volunteers the likes of Citi, EY, Intuit, and Maxar Technologies, a space tech and intelligence company. Our research shows that NFTE alumni are most impacted by their relationships with volunteers and maintain those relationships years later. The power of this exposure works both ways because corporate citizens reap benefits when their investment in entrepreneurship education and in underrepresented entrepreneurs improves our economy. It’s smart business.

Recognizing that virtual reality technology excites students and connects them to learning in ways traditional classroom experiences cannot. Used responsibly, VR offers numerous advantages to education. Earlier this year, our team utilized virtual reality to connect learners from around the world. Young people from Asia to South America wore VR goggles to network with one another and prepare for NFTE’s first-ever World Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

STEM fields remain disproportionately male, but women are gaining traction. When it comes to education, women and girls really do rule the world. They make up a solid majority of students in postsecondary education — 58% of college undergraduates are women. A growing proportion of STEM majors, some 45%, are women. There has been a healthy number of women in essential occupations in the biological and social sciences. That was quite evident at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though only 28% of the STEM workforce comprises women — and fewer still are in the more lucrative engineering and computer science occupations — NFTE sees opportunity on the horizon. Results from our Entrepreneurial Mindset Index assessment show girls outpace boys in most of our STEM-related domains. Our girls and young women show aptitude in such areas as thinking of ideas, creating solutions, orienting themselves for the future, and recognizing opportunity.

It would benefit us all to lean into this high level of educational pursuit and achievement by girls and young women.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

As I mentioned earlier, though 70% of STEM workers are male, girls do exhibit a strong interest in STEM when they are very young. Unfortunately, and due to systemic barriers, that zeal progressively wanes by the time they reach middle school and high school.

That doesn’t have to be the case. NFTE is approaching four decades of working with underestimated youth. What has become starkly clear over time is the importance of actively engaging girls in STEM-entrepreneurship, while connecting them with professionals in these fields who share similar life experiences.

Amylah Charles is one of our national pitch challenge champs and the 18-year-old founder of CurlyCrownz Hair Care. She recently met another African American NFTE alumna, Jasmine Lawrence. Jasmine is a Senior Product Manager at Everyday Robots and founded EDEN BodyWorks at age 13 after attending one of our BizCamps. Amylah saw first-hand that women of color can and do excel as entrepreneurs and in high-paying STEM roles.

We increase engagement in STEM by:

Connecting girls in middle and high school with diverse STEM role models,

Increasing STEM scholarship and internship options for young women, and

Ensuring equitable access to STEM education through programs like ours, as well as in traditional classrooms, out-of-school programs, and programs delivered using virtual and hybrid modalities.

If I could add a fourth, we should obviously ensure equal pay for women in all fields, including STEM.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Expand access to entrepreneurship education, so young people can take control of their lives and economic destinies. NFTE works with schools across the nation to implement curricula for middle and high school students that engage them in learning and educate them about career pathways and other post-graduation opportunities. Our programming has changed the lives of many students and put them on a trajectory for success that may not have originally been available to them. One example is Andres Cardona who, at just 16 years old, was prepared to drop out of school after witnessing his mom crying over the bills. When Andres approached his teacher with the news, she encouraged him to participate in the school’s NFTE class for a chance to create a business and win $10,000. Andres stayed in school, launched his business — Elite Basketball Academy, and eventually earned enough money to purchase his mom a new house and let her retire.

Invite all states to expand efforts to mandate financial literacy education. I stated this earlier, but it bears repeating. Fortunately for our students, elements of financial literacy are embedded in NFTE’s curriculum. They learn how to budget and how to estimate assets and liabilities. Though these are business-based concepts and not personal finance, they help students understand the pitfalls and advantages of strong fiscal judgement and good stewardship. We’ve seen a few students actually build their winning businesses around financial literacy. Abhinav Gorrepati won our Bay Area regional competition last spring with CredX, an educational online platform that uses engaging lessons to teach financial literacy to teens.

Create intentional programs starting in middle school that give young learners real opportunities to understand the industries and careers available to them. When I think about how these types of programs impact students, I immediately think of Ivy Chieng, a middle schooler and NFTE student. Through our curriculum, she created a STEM-based business called SwigSafe Napkins, a chemically treated napkin that changes color when it encounters a drink that has been drugged. It’s a very clever product! Ivy’s business concept earned her the first-place title in NFTE’s LA Metro Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge. She won $1,500 in seed money for her business and an opportunity to compete nationally to win an additional $10,000.

Promote collaborative group-based and project-based learning to not only teach students about the world of work, but to also foster good citizenship. Whether competing as individuals or teams, you’ll see our competitors communicate and collaborate — a key domain of the entrepreneurial mindset. Through our regional, national, and world pitch challenges, we also teach comfort with risk. Our learners know how to compromise, show mutual respect, work as a team toward common goals, clearly express their ideas, and see challenges as opportunities. Indeed, there are students who comengageplete NFTE’s Aspiring Entrepreneurs Program and leave with actual products or operational businesses. We’re quite proud of that fact. We also take pride in knowing our learners will leave NFTE with foundational skills that are essential to doing well in every facet of life, including global citizenship. Entrepreneurship education and collaborative work are vital to solving global problems and promoting economic well-being.

Retain focus on core academics, like reading and math, but don’t forget about teaching broad-based skills that are important for the workforce. Innovation drives today’s economy. Around every corner there is an opportunity, a new technology, or a better way to address a need or solve a problem. The world is fluid and evolves quickly, and our young people need the kind of mindset that equips them to recognize opportunity, take initiative, think critically, collaborate, compromise, innovate in the face of challenges, and so forth.

These aren’t soft skills. They are critical, broad-based power skills that help young people chart their own paths to success — in school, in work, and in life. We teach those skills, which is why well over 85% of our alumni are employed or furthering their education, and a number of them earn more than the median U.S. salary.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Use the word three times, and it’s yours.” That was shared with me by Remelle Johnson, my sixth-grade teacher at P.S. 98 in Queens, NY. It was relevant then and has been relevant to my life since. Mrs. Johnson is the reason others refer to my large vocabulary or often describe me as well-spoken. Her advice also convinced me that we must take responsibility for our own success and growth. Mrs. Johnson believes — as do I believe — no matter the circumstance we are born into, we have a great deal of power and agency over it, if we try.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Lunch may be more sensible than a round of tennis, but I’d love to chat with Serena Williams. She is a living American legend, founder of a venture capital firm, and one of the greatest athletes of all time. She has 23 Grand Slam singles titles — astounding! I see her as an amazing role model for entrepreneurs, including the underestimated youth we serve. Many of our students are young women of color who share Serena’s drive to achieve. I would invite her to lunch with these girls and young women to talk about what inspired her launch of Serena Ventures and motivates her to invest so deeply in founders with similar life experiences. I’d be content simply having a seat at that table to watch the magic happen.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can learn more about the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship by visiting www.nfte.com. Follow me on LinkedIn here.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Dr JD LaRock of Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.