Cities, Startup Culture and the Neglected Role of Our Public Schools

Plenty of would-be entrepreneurs are sitting in our K-12 classrooms. They're not getting the help they need to become the innovators who could boost our economies.

Can a local startup culture reduce or even deter crime? Can a business incubator motivate, mentor and inspire innovative youth in a positive direction that benefits local economies?

The technology-focused startup culture that is emerging in cities and regions across the United States and around the world is a tale of two separate and unequal landscapes, each with risk-taking entrepreneurs and an investor community fueling it with resources. While ignoring the landscape of illicit entrepreneurial activity, more cities are investing heavily in developing these high-activity startup zones.

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It's no secret why these investments are happening, of course. "Entrepreneurship is America's secret sauce," says Karen Mills, head of the U.S. Small Business Administration. "It's what built the greatest economy in the world and the strongest middle class." And as a report by Startup Genome and Telefonica Digital puts it, technology startups "look to be the primary growth engine of the new information economy."

Cities that embrace the startup culture -- with its incubators, accelerators, demo days, pitch competitions, startup weekends, hackathons, meetups and private-equity venture capitalists and angels hovering as they await a deal flow to emerge -- will likely become coveted regions where people want to live, work, play and send their kids to school.

Public schools with a reputation for innovation and high achievement provide communities with a competitive advantage in attracting companies to their regions and retaining talent. That's why those schools in underserved communities should be good ones that offer the hope of business ownership to disadvantaged youth. High dropout rates feed a pipeline of ill-prepared and unequipped youth who nonetheless are seeking economic opportunity. Millions of high-school dropouts intuitively assess the landscape of economic options and choose the wrong kind of entrepreneurship.

While the sale of illegal products and services carries a high risk of significant consequences, alternative resources and pathways leading to positive entrepreneurial opportunities are in short supply. The startup culture's landscape of mentoring, peer-to-peer guidance and collaboration among innovators, critical thinkers and problem-solvers is wholly missing in thousands of K-12 schools, in particular those that serve communities of low-income families. Yet, this innovation ecosystem is intuitive for many students.

Much needs to be done to incorporate new approaches in failing public schools. What is the strategy to develop curricula with a focus on teaching Common Core standards wrapped around a nucleus of experiential, project-based entrepreneurial instruction? How is the K-12 supply pipeline responding to the demand for more resilient, creative, critical-thinking STEM-educated innovators?

Would-be innovators are sitting in the classrooms of our K-12 public schools, wondering how they might transform their skills, talents and passions into wealth. Shouldn't our schools, which are part and parcel of every local economic ecosystem, be investing in entrepreneurs who seek to solve problems rather than create them? Could our public schools become knowledge incubators that foster and nurture the next generation of innovative entrepreneurs equipped to address problems not only in their own communities and but also in the larger society?

Co-founder of ScaleUp Partners LLC