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Shark Tank meets the sixth grade

Entrepreneurship - UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

UNC Kenan-Flagler MBAs teach entrepreneurship to students at Global Scholars Academy.

What would happen if some of the world’s most innovative thinkers had the knowledge and confidence to turn their ideas into reality?

Just imagine the possibilities.

UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA students hope to inspire and empower a new generation of entrepreneurs through the Global Scholars Academy Startup Challenge, an eight-week program that teaches kids the basic fundamentals of business and gives them a first-hand look at what it takes to translate an idea into reality.

The idea stemmed from Jim Johnson’s social entrepreneurship class, in which students are tasked with developing social-impact ventures to eliminate poverty, create jobs and foster community development.

Classmates Taylor Mallard (MBA ’15) and Sean Tracy (MBA ’15) believed that teaching kids about business through fun, practical applications could make a huge impact on the next generation and teamed up to co-found the GSA Startup Challenge.

They enlisted the help of friends with prior teaching experience to develop the curriculum – which includes lessons on marketing, finance, operations, product design and presentation skills – and recruited fellow MBA Community Service Club members as teachers. Global Scholars Academy (GSA), a school that strives to improve the educational outcomes and overall life chances of youth from Durham’s most disadvantaged communities, partnered with Mallard and Tracy to pilot the program. It was such a success that it’s become one of the Community Service Club’s annual initiatives.

Challenge accepted
The GSA Startup Challenge begins with a group of sixth graders dreaming up ideas for products that address a real-world need. Over the course of eight weeks – and with the help of UNC Kenan-Flagler students – they learn what it takes to bring their idea to life.

Each workshop begins with a short 10-minute lesson led by an MBA student, followed by breakout sessions in which GSA students work together to develop their business concept. Teams are assigned randomly – just like MBA study teams – to help students build teamwork and leadership skills.


“They pitch these crazy, interesting ideas that you don’t think could ever work. Then when we sit down with them, they have really great ideas about how they might be able to accomplish it,” says Liz Sypher (MBA ’16).

The program culminates with GSA students pitching their business ideas to a panel of judges – think “Shark Tank” meets the sixth grade.

Several ideas pitched by GSA students have proved to be viable business ventures. The winning concept from the 2015 cohort was a safe ride service app to help kids get to and from after-school activities while their parents are at work – think Uber meets babysitting. A few months after the group’s final presentation, Sypher came across an article about Shuddle and HopSkipDrive – startups that have raised millions dollars in funding for similar concepts.

“This idea that our GSA students came up with independently has actually done really well in California,” she says.

The program has also helped spark new interests and career ambitions for GSA students.

“We had one really timid, extremely shy student who didn’t really show much interest in the program at first. When we taught the marketing lesson, it was the first time I saw her get really excited about an assignment,” says Sypher. “She took the initiative to design her team’s company logo and figured out how to incorporate their tag line. There was that spark of interest, and it just opened her up.”

Showing kids what’s possible – from innovation to higher education and careers – is what GSA is all about, says Johnson, the William R. Kenan Jr Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and co-founder of GSA.

“We’re in the business of building social capital for GSA students, and UNC Kenan-Flagler becomes the crucible through which we build that capital for them,” he says. And it’s a two-way street.

“Most of our MBA students have had little experience in communities like Durham, where – in the shadows of one of the most rapidly growing communities in the U.S. – there exist economically-marginalized areas where childhood hunger, drugs and violence are part of daily life. We may understand these issues internationally and globally, but it’s not something you’d expect to hear in the heart of the Research Triangle,” says Johnson.

Working with GSA students not only educates UNC Kenan-Flagler MBAs about these issues – it provides valuable perspective they can draw on in the future. “When they’re in influential positions in the business world, they’re going to be able to make decisions to make life better for these kids,” he says.

And for GSA students, connecting with UNC Kenan-Flagler MBAs can open minds and doors.

“There’s not a lot of new learning that goes on when you hang around people who are just like you. It’s when you have a diverse portfolio of connections that you learn new information and gain new connections – for internships, jobs and a whole range of other things,” says Johnson. “When the kids interact with our MBA students, it’s opening a new world of possibilities for them.”