'Shark Tank'-style class teaches TJ students real world business lessons
Over the summer, a group of West Jefferson Hills residents were tasked with identifying problems affecting their daily lives then creating products to solve them.
They’re not employees of the latest tech startup — though they could be someday. They’re students in Thomas Jefferson High School’s new class offering authentic business world experience called INCubatoredu, which launched this school year.
“They’re learning that they can take an idea that they have and actually turn it into reality if they put forth the effort,” said Lisa Kostella, TJ business teacher and INCubatoredu lead. “This class not only gives them business skills but also teaches them to survive in the real world.”
INCubatoredu is a nationwide program run by Illinois-based nonprofit Uncharted Learning. It operates in more than 100 high schools across the United States.
In the TJ class, five teams are working to create new products or services while being trained by community leaders on how to build a successful business.
Coaches, all local entrepreneurs, are sharing real-life lessons with the students. Mentors, who also run area businesses, will team up with the students to help them develop their ideas.
Fifteen business leaders or professionals are volunteering their time. During a mentor match day held at TJ on Oct. 8, five prospective mentors heard pitches from students on their businesses and asked questions about the products.
The end goal is for students to pitch their ideas to a “Shark Tank”-like panel of community leaders, who could provide funds to further their business, just like on the popular ABC show.
Students’ ideas vary from gadgets to make them feel more safe to jewelry that’s more than just an accessory. One team developed a fashionable, slim wristband that can track its wearer’s whereabouts to help first responders locate them, and, if needed, shock an assailant. Another team hopes to create a DIY liquid solution for cracked phones.
Other groups presented ideas for an app that will help users determine which grocery stores have the best prices while another wants to create jewelry that disperses a scent throughout the day.
Some are still formulating ideas. Students will talk with their mentors at least twice a week to get assistance.
Next, they’re going to conduct problem and solution interviews, where they will determine if there actually is a market for their products. They’ll also learn about customer connections and finances.
Having this opportunity in high school will put TJ students at an advantage, said mentor Ritwik Gupta, a 2014 TJ graduate, who works as a machine learning/artificial intelligence researcher at CMU.
“Having a period to think about a project that you care about on your own time in a structured way in class is really important,” he said. “That’s learning that’s entirely driven by you and on your terms.”
Learning from real-life entrepreneurs already has taught the students so much, they say.
“You’re being treated like a working adult. You’re going to be taught there’s ups and downs and you’re going to have to go through them,” said student Connor Dalton.
“They’re not sugarcoating it,” added his peer Chad Gress. “It’s not easy to create a business. They show us what it’s like to start it, how much it costs, and that it’s not always cut and dry and it’s not always about money.”
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.