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The Entrepreneur Education Highway

This month, Y4Y had the pleasure of speaking with a team of entrepreneurship education gurus in sunny Florida. Vanessa Spero is a regional specialized 4-H youth development extension agent and serves as a faculty member with the University of Florida and program co-lead for the Gator Pit entrepreneurship education program for 14- to 18-year-olds in her state. She was joined by her colleague and co-lead in the Gator Pit, Brent Broaddus (regional specialized 4-H youth development extension agent), and their partner at the Florida Afterschool Network (herself a nonprofit entrepreneur), Jennifer Smith, who’s the network’s youth entrepreneurship specialist. [Podcast]

Y4Y: Thank you all so much for being here to discuss a topic that many educators are eager to dive into but don’t quite know where to begin. In fact, just to reinforce that point, this group shared with me a recent Florida survey on interest in youth entrepreneurship, which we’ve placed in the links for this interview. Respondents included community- and school-based programs, local government agencies, nonprofits and more, and 90% indicated they have no youth entrepreneurship curriculum or program but would “love to hear more about this opportunity.” So, on that note, Ms. Smith, would you please flesh this out a little for us? Why is entrepreneurship education so important at the K-12 levels?

JS: Research shows that students are not being successfully prepared to be college and career ready. There is a gap on how we are preparing and training students around workforce readiness skills sought after by employers (like critical thinking and problem solving). In an unprecedented time in our country, we are failing to rise to the challenge of adequately preparing students for success in the workforce of tomorrow.

Did you know that 50% of jobs will become automated in the next 7-10 years? By 2030, two million “new” jobs will need to be created for a rapidly changing and evolving workforce.

Even before the pandemic put an uncertain lens on the jobs of tomorrow, research shows that only 40% of students who graduate high school are ready to engage in rigorous coursework in a postsecondary setting. This means employers do not have graduates with the appropriate training for success in the workplace. Employers are struggling to find new hires who can think entrepreneurially. Having our youth engaged with entrepreneurship programs starting as young as elementary is exactly the direction we need to move in. There are so many wonderful curricula and programs out there, and the Florida Afterschool Network is determined to be the connector and help get these programs started in schools, afterschool programs and summer camps throughout Florida. This is new and exciting but can also be very overwhelming for our education sector. Sometimes we just don’t know where to begin.

Y4Y: I’m beginning to appreciate why it’s so hard for programs to know where to begin! Unlike STEM, for example, where students are building from day one of kindergarten on knowledge and skills in slowly expanding circles, the basis for entrepreneurship education might not be visible in school-day offerings until late in high school. Mr. Broaddus, what are your thoughts on where out-of-school time programs can even begin?

BB: The beauty of the ecosystem we all are creating together is that out-of-school time programs can join us on the entrepreneur education highway at any point along the way. We like to think of this network as a highway with tons of on- and off-ramps and even rest areas along the way. Your program might be at the “this would be amazing” stage and want to jump on at the beginning and start utilizing some of the many awesome curricula available like the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, or NFTE, for one example. Or, maybe you want to jump in with a curriculum tied to a hands-on experience and community partners like Lemonade Day (listeners can check out the link in the transcript to learn about Lemonade Day). You might be a program that has youth already working through a curriculum or just completed one and you’re ready to jump on to experience Gator Pit and start learning from entrepreneur mentors, getting into business canvas and value-added segments along with SWOT analysis (that’s “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats”) and ready to pitch your idea for cash! Or you might have started getting heart palpitations just listening to me talk about all that and say, “we are just not ready for all that!” That’s perfectly OK. We have rest areas to catch your breath and ask for more support, guidance and opportunities. We have off-ramps where your program isn’t ready for all of this, but would like to have a small, limited, shorter-duration experience to start with. The entrepreneur highway has your back no matter where you join us and how long you want to stay on it. We are always open and have the streetlights on for you.

Y4Y: Well, and on that note, we did want to hear about the Gator Pit project and all its elements. Ms. Spero, could you give us the 411?

VS: Absolutely! Gator Pit has gone through some transformations over the years, and each year we try to adapt to make sure we aren’t duplicating what other entrepreneurship educational curricula are doing, but instead provide the features that youth may not be getting from other programs. Currently, the program is entirely virtual (and we actually made that decision before COVID to accommodate students across the state so geography wouldn’t be a barrier to participation). It has three components: Educate, Inspire and Pitch. We provide 6-8 live virtual education sessions on the core topics: mindset, beta-testing, pitch, etc. We also provide recommended educational resources that are free and accessible for youth to continue to learn. The second component is Inspire. Inspire provides about four sessions where entrepreneurs share their stories, followed by time for youth to ask questions. This is the time youth can find out the good, bad and ugly in starting their own business while engaging entrepreneurs share their experiences to INSPIRE the next generation of entrepreneurs. The last session is about four pitch practice sessions. Youth can practice their pitches in front of us, and we will give feedback to help make them more competitive. The culmination is the Gator Pit Competition. We require a few application items: lean business plan, budget and pitch video. Youth from across the state are invited to join the program. Not all youth will end up pitching their idea, and that’s OK. We look to provide an opportunity for youth to enhance a current business endeavor, start a new one or just learn more about the process. We’ve had some pretty interesting businesses: goat milk products, succulents, lawn care and taxidermy!

Y4Y: The Gator Pit sounds like a truly amazing “end goal” sort of aspiration, and maybe some of our listeners will be thinking about how they might partner with their own local universities to move the needle toward something like it. In the meantime, back to those steps that our 21st CCLC programs can be taking right now in entrepreneurship education. Ms. Smith, as an Afterschool Network partner who knows out-of-school time programming, what kinds of where-to-start resources might you recommend, and why?

JS: The Florida Afterschool Network is a great place to start. Florida programs can fill out our Youth Entrepreneurship Survey, which you can find at Click on “Youth Entrepreneurship” and we can go from there. Other states might have similar resources. There are so many different programs out there, but through our site, I’m able to help guide programs depending on what age group they’re working with, what setting youth will be in, and who will be implementing the program. Let me tell you about a few of our favorite programs.

  • NFTE (the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship) is a global nonprofit that annually works with both secondary and postsecondary students in under-resourced communities to help these youth develop entrepreneurial skills missing in recent graduates. NFTE believes that giving students the challenge of finding a way to make money in their industry leveraging their talents and expertise more truly mirrors real-life work experience, regardless of whether the path of study is culinary, art or law. They have train-the-trainer certifications, lesson plans and guides, mentoring sessions, and rubrics for their pitch competitions. Having all of the resources to best implement youth entrepreneurship instruction and have it be a success is key!
  • And for elementary-age schoolchildren, we are working closely with Lemonade Day and WagiLabs. Lemonade Day is a program of the Houston-based nonprofit Prepared 4 Life, founded by Michael and Lisa Holthouse in 2007. WagiLabs is a global, social-innovation incubator for kids’ ideas. Two amazing programs with lots of resources for youth, parents and educators alike.

You can learn more about both engaging and innovative programs by visiting our website and clicking on their links!

Y4Y: That sounds completely manageable for our astute listeners, and we’ll be sure to include those links with the transcript of this podcast as well! Ms. Spero, I did want to ask you to expand a little on the “getting started” aspect of entrepreneurship education, maybe just to touch on those intangibles. Are there students who stand out at a young age as future entrepreneurs? Am I putting the cart before the horse? Can anyone become an entrepreneur with a comprehensive curriculum on board?

VS: I think we all get hung up on the large-scale entrepreneurs that come to mind — of course, those that are currently taking their cars to space. This makes it hard to remember that there are so many traits that make up an entrepreneur, and oftentimes youth have those traits, or the “DNA of an entrepreneur,” as we like to say. They just need to be nurtured. Some of the big ones we like to emphasize are resilience, passion, risk-taking and communication. Building upon these traits helps youth envision that they, too, can be entrepreneurs if they aren’t already. So yes, anyone can become an entrepreneur. I bet you’re one and you didn’t even know it!

Y4Y: You must have heard about my swampland property listings! Shifting gears, maybe Mr. Broaddus could expand on those universal benefits of entrepreneurship education for us?

BB: We are in the most unique time society has ever been in. Even before the pandemic, the demands on youths’ time was immense. Now, mix in the new normal of virtual, hybrid and in-person demands with the ever-increasing pressures and distractions via social media. So, we could take the easy path and just dismiss youth entrepreneurship as one more thing on our overstressed youth. Heck, we might even reason that those kids can be entrepreneurs when they’re adults. They’ve got time. But the importance of youth entrepreneurship is huge. We just don’t know how to promote it among youth properly. Youth entrepreneurship becomes more and more popular daily. The development of internet technology gives us many opportunities. Not just for end user businesses but for resources, peer networks and partnerships that span the globe. So, you asked about universal benefits of entrepreneurship education. To me benefits could be talked about for hours from what I have seen and experienced with young people already. But let’s just highlight a few together today. Youth entrepreneurship helps you to improve your soft skills. You will be able to improve your communication skills, which are important for absolutely every success. Besides that, you will learn how to organize your time, be creative, improve your self-discipline and critical thinking, and collaborate with others. These align with the 4 C’s of 21st century skills as well.

Y4Y: You’ve all given our listeners so much to think about, but more important, some ideas on how to actually get started with implementing some sort of entrepreneurship education in their 21st CCLC programs. Can you each offer any last words of encouragement or advice on that score?

JS: The unknown is scary, and many of us have a fear of change. However, change­ — big change — is exactly what is needed. Now is the time for us to prepare our young minds, creators, and innovators to explore their entrepreneurial spirits, practice the skills, and enhance them so they will be best prepared for our workforce of tomorrow. As adults, it is our job to give youth these experiences and opportunities to explore the unknown. Our youth are our future leaders of tomorrow, and we cannot wait to start building them into their future roles.

VS: I would add that you will be surprised by the ideas and innovations youth come up with! And the excitement and passion they can show with just a little encouragement from people that care about their growth and development. You never know who you know, or the youth know, that can help to really turn their ideas into reality.

BB: And, challenging yourself is mandatory. It’s far too easy to stay in your comfort zone for life. It’s logical because you feel safe there. However, that doesn’t mean you’re truly happy. Youth don’t always learn how important for their happiness and success it is to take risks. If you aren’t ready to do things you're afraid of, it won’t mean anything to you. Youth entrepreneurship makes you feel ready for something like that. To me, I love to also point out that youth entrepreneurship is a safe place to experiment. It’s a career path, and it’s inspiring for everyone that comes into the youth entrepreneurial sphere of influence. The highway is open; nothing can stop you now!


Vanessa Spero has been with UF/IFAS Extension 4-H Youth Development since 2007. Her current interests are healthy living and career workforce development programs for youth, as well as school-based programming and inclusion, diversity, accessibility and equity initiatives.


Jennifer Smith is a former Duval County (Florida) educator, a social entrepreneur, business owner, and mother to two beautiful daughters. She is a visionary who took her passion, creativity and leadership skills to start a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, The Giving Closet Project, which provides clothing, hygiene items, and other essentials to homeless and low-income youth in need. She joined the Florida Afterschool Network earlier this year as their youth entrepreneurship specialist to help expand their entrepreneurial mindset for youth throughout Florida.


Brent Broaddus has been with UF/IFAS Extension 4-H Youth Development since 2001. His programmatic focus includes STEM career awareness, workforce preparedness, entrepreneurship and youth mental health. Mr. Broaddus’s research interests are in the areas of group mentor-mentee relationship quality and delinquency pathway indicators, and using action research theory to invoke organizational change.


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