Young Founders Institute Prepares The Next Generation Of Entrepreneurs

During Young Founders Institute's two-week summer program, teens learn the ins-and-outs of entrepreneurship, receive $200 to grow their startups, and work with market-making CEOs, serial entrepreneurs, and business school professors. Executive Director Will Henry is in the green shirt.

Many kids run a lemonade stand at some point in their childhood. But very few of those would-be entrepreneurs actually grow up to start their own “real” businesses. The problem is, said Young Founders Institute Executive Director Will Henry, there are minimal opportunities for young kids to be exposed to entrepreneurship, and the educational resources that do exist focused on teaching the wrong things—one potential contributor to the fact that a reported 90% of startups fail. 

That was Henry’s impetus for founding Chapel Hill-based Young Founders Institute in 2019 alongside co-founder Tom Rose. Young Founders Institute aims to shape the next generation of entrepreneurs by providing a summer entrepreneurship program and other experiential opportunities to teach middle and high schoolers how to build companies, with a focus on teaching students how to create value.

“A lot of what’s being taught entrepreneurially to teens is very abstract, and it’s all about raising capital,” Henry said. “We differentiate ourselves by being grounded in teaching teams how to create value.”

Besides the summer camp, Young Founders Institute visits schools across the country to hold workshops called “learning sprints.” Another one of their workshops is called a “makeathon,” in which students build a business idea over the course of six hours, and whoever goes through the process most effectively wins a cash prize.

Henry has learned his fair share of lessons about adding value to a business, from serving as Director of Business Development for Chapel Hill-based FinSpider to being a Support Specialist for Noom Health. Henry’s founding of Young Founders Institute grew out of a passion for experiential education and working with students. The latter interest is also evident in the other Triangle-based business he founded and which he still leads as CEO, Aspire Career Foundation, which helps undergraduates land summer internships.

Young Founders Institute has been awarded an ECOSYSTEM partner grant from NC IDEA, and Henry is also an alum of NC IDEA’s LABS program.

There will be three summer camp sessions at UNC this year (all with remote options available), and the application to apply for a spot in the first session closes this Sunday, May 23. The 2021 sessions mark the summer camps’ third year—including last year, which was entirely virtual—and each session will have about 30 students, Henry said.

At the beginning of camp, the students are formed into teams—Henry calls team formation their “secret sauce”—and come up with a business idea. Students who had an idea ahead of the camp can pitch it to their teammates, who then debate and discuss. 

Next, the student teams go out and talk to potential customers to gauge if their idea would actually solve a problem for them. 

This is a critical step, Henry said, who previously had to learn the tough lesson himself that people won’t pay for your product if it isn’t actually solving a problem or creating value for them. Henry’s early idea for what later became Aspire Career Foundation was to apply similar positive psychology methods as used by Noom Health to reduce the anxiety in the process of job-seeking—only to find no one in the market actually needed a product like that.

In addition to the summer program, Young Founders Institute also provides year-round entrepreneurship events to shape the next generation of innovators.

After identifying a salient problem, students build a MVP (minimum viable product) and test that solution in the market. The last part of the camp focuses on making sales and scaling. Leadership coaches and product managers also provide mentorship to help students develop as leaders and develop their product, respectively.

“At the end of the day, every student gets a sale,” Henry said. “It’s really important for us, because that is the key to value creation—whether someone will pay you for what you’ve created.”

Creating a vision is key

Henry said the goal of the camp isn’t exactly for every student to continue their business after the camp ends (although many do), but to teach enough about value creation methodologies and entrepreneurial thought processes so that every student can go on to deliver value wherever they land, whether that be at a pre-existing company or one they start themselves. 

Every day over the course of two weeks, a different entrepreneur, CEO, or business school professor comes to share their story with students. Speakers in the past have also led workshops. For instance, Tim Flood from the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School taught students how to pitch, and venture capitalist-slash-Launch Chapel Hill mentor Scott Albert led a workshop on how to build a VC portfolio. 

As per a belief about entrepreneurship’s “see it to believe it” nature, speakers come from a variety of backgrounds so that every student can envision their own path. With females, Black and Latinx entrepreneurs underrepresented in the field, it is crucial for young students with an eye on entrepreneurship to hear the story of someone like them who has been successful, Henry said. 

“A lot of students come in using language like ‘I want to be an entrepreneur,'” Henry said, “and so the other part of our goal is to shift that identity, so instead of saying ‘I want to’ they say ‘I am an entrepreneur.’”