How a business incubator program launched at Barrington High spread to hundreds of schools
This fall, thousands of students at 196 high schools nationwide -- and even four high schools in Australia -- will start their own companies as part of a business incubator class launched nine years ago in Barrington.
The curriculum, known as INCubatoredu, is designed to teach the tenets of entrepreneurship to 16- and 17-year-olds, challenging them to form their own startup companies. Students learn key business principles by practicing them, at times making classrooms feel more like shared office spaces for young professionals.
The program's creators -- entrepreneurs Michael Miles and Karl Freucht, who were neighbors in Barrington -- pitched the class idea to Barrington Area Unit District 220 leaders, and during the 2013-14 school year Barrington High students became the first to take the course.
At the end of the first year, five student groups were invited to pitch their companies to investors during a "Shark Tank"-style year-end presentation. In total, Barrington-area investors pledged $80,000 to the student companies.
The program's success that year drew attention from across the country. As inquiries poured in, the nonprofit organization Miles and Freucht founded to spread the curriculum kicked into high gear.
Christy Scott, executive director of Uncharted Learning, said those first few years were challenging but invigorating as they gave presentation after presentation to leaders of school districts as well as state officials.
"We would share the story of how the program went at Barrington and the impact it had on students and community, and the response we'd often get was, 'Why have we not heard of you before?'" Scott said.
Now, the organization hosts annual summits where experienced teachers in the program -- such as Hagop Soulakian, who taught the first incubator course at Barrington High -- share their experiences.
"It's exciting to think that back then we were the lone rangers, and now I'm someone people go to for advice," said Soulakian, who began teaching in 2013 after a career as a trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
Over the years the program has seen several companies pitched by high school students continue successfully for years.
Drake Roberts and Anthony Tamras run DeoBlock, which sells compact, recyclable, plant-based air deodorizers. They based their business concept on the idea they came up with in the incubator class at Palatine High School during the 2015-16 school year. Their group won $25,000 at a districtwide pitch competition, and Roberts and Tamras decided to change their college plans so they could stay local and develop their company.
"If it wasn't for that class we took, we would have been in cubicles now working for corporate America," Tamras said.
Soulakian said students who take the class learn skills such as group work, planning, obtaining and processing information, and problem solving.
"They're doing presentations in person and hosting Zoom meetings, creating videos and newsletters," Soulakian said. "Even if they're not majoring in business, the class is creating skills that are highly in demand in the world today."
The curriculum is updated every year as the tools used by real-world businesses change.
"Over 10 years students have used different platforms to communicate," Scott said. "The curriculum must evolve to remain relevant."
Uncharted Learning now offers curriculum for younger students as well. While there are key differences -- third-graders don't present to investors -- students at all levels still learn important business principles through experiential learning, Scott said.
Elementary school students are asked to come up with solutions to meaningful problems in their lives. She said one class had the idea to use discarded materials to create useful things, such as one student who turned an old belt into a pet collar.
"I swear our fifth-grade students have more creativity than some high school students," Scott said.
Including elementary and middle schools, 405 schools are using Uncharted Learning's curriculum this school year, Scott said.
The goal is for the program to continue growing.
"To hear from students and educators that this program changed their lives has been so rewarding," Scott said. "This program has the ability to re-engage students and educators at a time it is needed to connect purpose to learning."