Why This CEO Believes Entrepreneurship Is as Important to Learn as Geometry

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Ayele Shakur believes that if our country wants to build a strong future for tomorrow, we need to teach young students about entrepreneurship starting today. A veteran classroom educator, Shakur taught for 11 years in the Los Angeles area and in the Boston Public Schools.

Today, she is the CEO of Build.org, a national nonprofit whose mission is to use entrepreneurship to unlock the potential of young people living in under-resourced communities. With more than three decades of experience as an innovator in urban education, Shakur is on a mission to spark the Generation Entrepreneur (Gen E) movement.

She sat down with Jessica Abo to discuss how Build.org works and what she’s doing to make entrepreneurship education a requirement in schools.

Jessica Abo: Can you start by telling us a little bit about Build?

Ayele Shakur: Build is an entrepreneurship program for high school students. We use the experience of helping teenagers start real businesses as a way to get them reconnected in school and on a path to college, careers and life success. Ultimately, we’re helping young people become the CEO of their own lives.

How do students find you, and how does the organization work?

BUILD is actually offered as an elective credit-bearing class in high schools across the country. We go into a school district and specifically target the lower-performing schools because we know students in those high schools don’t have the same types of opportunities as more resourced students have.

Why do you think entrepreneurship education is just as important as other subjects?

We believe entrepreneurship should be a foundational course in high schools because the experience of launching your own business is a transformational experience for young people. It builds their confidence and belief in themselves. It gives them a sense of ownership and agency. It helps them to understand principles of financial literacy, economic power and intergenerational wealth building. It also teaches those basic 21st-century skills that we know all of our companies are clamoring to find in their employees. So through Build, through entrepreneurship and starting a business and running a business all through high school, students are learning what we call the Spark Skills. That’s communication, collaboration, problem-solving, innovation, grit and self-management. And those skills are just so necessary for young people to succeed in life and also in the workplace.

As an entrepreneur, I love all of this so much. Tell me what Build is doing to make entrepreneurship education a requirement in school.

So many people think about entrepreneurship education as just young people starting businesses. But as I shared, there are so many other skills that young people are acquiring. So we’re on a mission: We’re launching a national movement called Building Generation Entrepreneur. We call it Building Gen E, and it’s a national movement designed to inspire a diverse generation of entrepreneurial leaders and changemakers. Our aim is to bring entrepreneurship education to middle and high schools all across the country.

We’re forming an Alliance with other wonderful national entrepreneurship programs like NFTE and BizWorld. They’re joining forces with us, and together, our goal is to change the narrative on entrepreneurship education. So many companies are trying to figure out how they increase diversity, equity and inclusion at their companies. We have to start early by thinking about the pipeline of young people  talented Black and Latinx youth who are coming through our high schools and eventually through our colleges and into our workforces. And so teaching them those foundational entrepreneurial skills is just as important as geometry, reading and writing, and other basic fundamentals. If our schools are truly preparing kids for the future, entrepreneurship should be right there on the list as one of those foundational courses that they have access to while they’re still in school.

What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs out there?

For our young entrepreneurs, I encourage them to find an entrepreneurship program in their community. I encourage them to learn how to take risks, how to fail fast and to learn from those failures and get back up again. How to really have a growth mindset where you’re continuing to learn and to grow day by day, because learning doesn’t end, even when you leave high school and go into the workforce. And then for entrepreneurs who are really interested in how they can give back, we want entrepreneurs and business leaders all across the country to get on board with us and join our movement in building Gen E together. We can provide mentorship for young people. We can be business coaches. We can really help this new generation by giving them the tools, the connections and social capital that they need in order to lead successful lives.

How can other entrepreneurs partner with you?

First, they can go to our website at Build.org. We need volunteers. We need donors. We need all educators, entrepreneurs and corporate partners interested and passionate about entrepreneurship to join the Gen E movement along with others like Jack Dorsey and Comcast NBCUniversal who are already huge supporters of BUILD’s work. Again, we’re inspiring a diverse new generation of entrepreneurial leaders and changemakers, starting early in school. And it’s going to take all of us who care about entrepreneurship to make that a reality.