When Jessica Hong entered Apex Friendship High School, like many first-years she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. While registering for elective classes, she decided to go with “Marketing” over “Microsoft Word and Powerpoint” and just see what happened. She had the mindset: get good grades and do a couple extracurricular activities here and there. But when she entered Dan Jackson’s Marketing classroom, and ultimately the Applied Synergies Partnership (ASaP), all of that changed.
Now Hong is a first-year at UNC Chapel Hill, hoping to enter the business school and eventually launch her own company that helps those with autism. Hong said she wouldn’t be who she is today without ASaP.
ASaP is an honors program that allows students at Apex Friendship High, in a partnership with NC State and the broader Triangle tech ecosystem, to use hands-on learning to make their entrepreneurship dreams more of a reality.
Jackson met with Raj Narayan, the NC State Associate Director of the Kenan Institute for Engineering & Science, at the referral of a fellow Apex teacher when Jackson was a brand new educator in North Carolina in 2015. Jackson said he left the meeting with his mind swimming with great ideas, focused around the question of how to synergize high-quality career and technical education at the high school level with the region’s preeminent institutions of higher learning and the Triangle’s own startup community. ASaP was the answer he came up with.
Narayan has been a supporter from the start: “Fundamentally, we’re trying to provide students with real-life learning, real experiential learning. And in some cases, depending on what they’re developing, maybe even a real opportunity or pathway for them to continue to build on that project and see if it lends itself to a potential startup company.”
For Hong, ASaP got her foot in the door to an internship with Raleigh-based Coworks, a coworking management software startup (that we previously featured here), running from the summer before her senior year through graduation. During her junior year in ASaP, Hong worked with the coworking space HQ Raleigh, conducting business operations research. When she and her partner presented their plan to improve operations, they caught the attention of Coworks CEO DeShawn Brown; HQ Raleigh’s operations run on Coworks’ software.
“DeShawn was very captivated by how mature we were at our age and the knowledge we had,” Hong said. “Honestly I would not have been able to do the things I had if it weren’t for ASaP and Mr. Jackson pushing us to be more than just a high schooler. He saw the potential in us to make an impact.”
ASaP’s design, which has students pitch business projects under the mentorship of outside innovation coaches, mirrors NC State’s own program at the Kenan Institute with executives in residence.
With nearly 100% proficiency for its students on the state’s end-of-year exams three years running, ASaP has students attend tours of HQ Raleigh and the 1 Million Cups startup pitch event at the Frontier in RTP. Students also often compete with ideas they developed within ASaP for DECA, an international business education organization, where Jackson said several have placed in the top 10. (Hong is among them, finishing sixth in 2018 with her partner Zachary Abramczyk.)
“The wonderful thing about these students is they inspire me as much as I inspire them,” Jackson said. “They have an impact on me. I’m constantly learning from them. The impact that I have had on them is: I consider myself a doorman, not a teacher. What I do is I open up doors of opportunity, and that gives our young entrepreneurs the opportunity to accelerate their learning of these skills.”
Even with all ASaP achieves for Apex Friendship High students and the Triangle startup ecosystem, there were still times of disappointment in Hong’s experience. At the end of her sophomore year, Hong participated at an international competition in Anaheim, Calif., in which no one placed. The students felt defeated, Hong said, but Jackson was still there inspiring them.
“I just remember Mr. Jackson telling us keep your heads held high,” Hong said. “He said that not many high school students do what you do, and he saw the potential in us to do great things, so that was really encouraging even though we were really upset about it. Mr. Jackson had kind of just been that mentor through successes and failures. He was always there.”
Through her time at ASaP, Hong has learned about education reform as well. She said so many students have their curiosity and passion for learning stunted because of the emphasis on scores and numbers. She hopes ASaP’s model can inspire other teachers.
Jackson said creative problem-solving, collaboration and conflict-management skills are what employers are really looking for. This is what ASaP lets students build upon.
“I take my hands off so that they can get their hands on the learning,” Jackson said. “You just have to step back and unleash their creativity, and they will continue to wow us.”