Middle School Millionaires

Can 13 year-olds with no business background become successful entrepreneurs? This question may sound worthy of an Innovation Catalyst training session, but for one dedicated group of Intuit volunteers in Tucson, Arizona, it was the basis for a project at Imago Dei Middle School whose anti-poverty empowerment mission has become a true model of how

Can 13 year-olds with no business background become successful entrepreneurs? This question may sound worthy of an Innovation Catalyst training session, but for one dedicated group of Intuit volunteers in Tucson, Arizona, it was the basis for a project at Imago Dei Middle School whose anti-poverty empowerment mission has become a true model of how We Care and Give Back.

Katherine Gregg, group manager for the Buy Experience Team and Innovation Catalyst at Intuit’s Tucson campus, first learned about Imago Dei Middle School (IDMS) in 2012.  A friend who works with children’s charities in Tucson thought the school’s anti-poverty mission might resonate with Gregg. An independent, yet tuition-free, school in Tucson, IDMS’s mission is to “break cycles of poverty through education.” It draws its student body of over 70 5th-8th graders from some of the region’s most economically and educationally disadvantaged populations. Beyond tuition, IDMS provides uniforms, materials and meals at no charge to minimize barriers to student engagement and success.

Soon after learning about IDMS, Gregg met with the school’s founders and attended a tour led by 6th-graders. Her impressions led her to consider how she could bring her expertise, and the skills of her colleagues at Intuit, to benefit the school’s mission of eliminating poverty.

In an article by Silicon Valley author and educator Steve Blank, The Lean LaunchPad Goes to Middle School, Gregg read how entrepreneurship had been taught to middle school students and she wondered if her team could develop and implement a similar program at IDMS.

“Back in 2013 these ideas were starting to evolve and I thought that, as an Innovation Catalyst, we could do something bigger with these kids.” Gregg recruited other Innovation Catalysts including Mike Stirrat, group manager of Customer Transaction and Retention Services and former co-chair of Tucson Intuit’s We Care and Give Back (WCGB) program. As the concept emerged, Gregg, Stirrat and other Tucson Innovation Catalysts met with school representatives and pitched their idea: teaching entrepreneurship and design thinking to IDMS students.

Garden creates a hive of activity
It was around that same time that Cameron Taylor, director of Enrichment and Graduate Support at IDMS, received funding to plant a garden at the school from Native Seed Search, a Tucson seed bank and conservation farm specializing in local and regional crops. The initial seeds planted in the garden, both literally and figuratively, have had a much broader impact than anyone would have imagined.
IDMS students typically live in areas in and around Tucson that are not just a climatic desert, but also food deserts. As Taylor relates, “The choice to sell vegetable seedlings came out of a desire on the students’ part to enact change. These kids live in neighborhoods devoid of fresh food options, and the closest thing to a grocery store is often times a corner convenience store.”
The garden started as a way to introduce students to the importance of supporting dwindling populations of pollinators in the Southwest, growing, harvesting and cooking with healthy food and social engagement. It also became fertile ground for the Intuit team’s inspiration, too: the kids could cultivate and sell seedlings at a local farmer’s market. As Gregg relates, it was a vehicle for empowerment through entrepreneurship.

“We wanted to teach design thinking in service of running a micro-business,” recalls Gregg. Her team scheduled a weekly lunch and began to brainstorm and create their curriculum. And they didn’t think small.

Creating buzz: Sales and marketing 101

Each year, a new class cycles into the program and designs new products, and the Intuit team’s retail sales operations module helps the kids learn by doing. How do they run the market? How do they run a production line? With two-and-a-half years’ worth of data, Intuit volunteers taught them to forecast their needs building on past successes and failures. Using data including average sales, the customer volume, variables affecting market attendance (e.g., inclement weather) and which plants work best in each season, the students determine their costs and the necessary number of plants needed based on past seedling failure rates. Customer empathy interviews help determine what products they will offer in time to prototype and finalize the design, begin production and plot their marketing strategy.
Reaping the benefits of giving back
Over the past two years as the program has become more comprehensive and multidisciplinary—from gardening to running a stall at the farmer’s market, sales and marketing to data gathering and customer interviews, product design and prototyping to customer support—Gregg’s team has implemented an entrepreneur boot camp that has enabled middle school kids from challenging backgrounds to benefit their communities by growing a business, and boost their sense of their own potential, from the ground up.
“A journey that began by coaxing nervous students into eating a tomato fresh from the vine ended the first year with those same students using the money they earned from their small business to give every family at Imago Dei a complete home garden kit, ensuring that experience can be shared over and over again, exponentially”, said Taylor, director of Enrichment and Graduate Support at IDMS. “They realized how powerful they were that day.”
The future of strategic seedling sales
As for the future of the project, Gregg reports that it remains vibrant, ever-evolving and has the potential to be a model of how the special expertise of Intuit’s employees can truly make a large-scale social impact.
The team’s dedication to the school, its mission and their program has led to over $15,000 of Intuit support via volunteer time grant funding. Another Intuit volunteer, Patrick Fenoughty, senior business analyst with Offering Design and Management, arranged for the school to receive 20 laptops through a company program that donates replaced computer hardware to nonprofits.
Gregg arranged to have Intuit utilize Arizona’s corporate tuition tax credit provision to allocate some $800,000 to the school in 2015. As a former co-Chair of Tucson’s WCGB program, Stirrat is excited about the team’s work with IDMS. “The volunteering Intuit employees do is amazing, but we have the ability and opportunity to do more than staff food and clothing drives. We’re proving the case that skills-based volunteering works.”
Every student that goes through the program visits Tucson’s Intuit campus, which, for many of them, is almost like visiting a different planet. “One of the coolest things is to watch the kids as they walk around the campus. They see the entire scope of job opportunities, they ask, ‘How can I work there?’ It broadens their thinking.” And, as Taylor relates, it directly impacts the students’ lives: “The skills our scholars are developing are both versatile and vital. They are co-opting their ‘business’ skills to write better essays, run student government more effectively and choose the right high school. The skills they are learning are helping illuminate choice and responsibility and helping them realize the relationship between the two.”