The power of leveraging safe spaces to foster and sustain the entrepreneurial mindset

What do you want to be when you grow up?

A question that is frequently asked of us throughout our early years. It is also a question that we change our answer to many times throughout the course of our lifespan. In the beginning, this question is answered for us by our parents or guardians who imagine us as future teachers, police officers, or firefighters.

In primary school, our response may toggle between wanting to be a doctor or dinosaur, and in our adolescent years we may gravitate towards the latest trend or simply place the whole idea on the shelf until we are ready to revisit the question again.

Once we reach high school however, this question almost seems unavoidable. When as high school seniors we are seemingly expected to know what career, we will hold and what path we will need to take to get there.

I remember that feeling in high school, when the time came for me to apply for college or pick a career path. I felt like I was already too late to the game. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. How would I know what I needed to do to get there?

With the Youth Entrepreneurship team here at the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute, we aim to flip that narrative on its head starting at the middle school level. By taking an entrepreneurial approach to education, we encourage students to explore their impact on the world around them.

When students start to understand the power of their voice at a young age, and are supported, they become more empowered and engaged in taking control of their futures.

How do we help cultivate and sustain the entrepreneurial mindset?

We create an environment that invites students to fail forward and we celebrate each and every one of their attempts along the way because those attempts mean that they are trying. An environment that becomes a safe space for students to learn and grow. Where students can be innovative and learn through exploration.

We help teachers create a safe space and establish a sense of community on their sites that is inclusive and supportive. This step is integral because our team works with under resourced middle school students and communities all across the country, that often get overlooked in education.

What is a safe space exactly? Well, it doesn’t have to be a physical space at all. Historically the integration of safe spaces has influenced the transformation of social spaces towards a more inclusive and supportive environment. Safe spaces serve as a place or platform, where the free flow of information is welcomed and encouraged, where relationships flourish, and divides weaken. Safe spaces where individuals can engage in dialogue about social issues and offer options and opportunities toward viable solutions.

Within these spaces we empower students to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, which encourages students to take risks in the design thinking process. Students are empowered to take action towards creating solutions to real world challenges. Students take a “how might we approach” and ask deeper questions while continuously testing and refining their ideas and prototypes.

We invite students to “fail forward” and remind them that failure is not the end and that it is to be celebrated as an integral part of the design thinking process. This allows students to let go of the fear of failure and liberates their mindset allowing them to focus on refining their ideas and work. Confidence in an entrepreneur is an integral characteristic and is a trait that can be extended to other aspects of life. Confidence in decision making and taking risks for example, supports student’s towards achieving their academic and professional goals.

Risks towards ideas, dreams, and hopefully a career they might not have envisioned for themselves before. These innovative experiences are inspired by taking an entrepreneurial approach to education and help to ignite a spark within. It is in those sparks of engagement and curiosity where students begin reimagining their futures and maybe even inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Future professionals, that generate solutions to real world problems such as plastic in our oceans.

Photo courtesy of Villa De Paz Elementary School – Phoenix, AZ

These same principles also extend to each and every educator we partner with along the way. We aid educators in creating inclusive spaces within their schools that support very diverse types of learners. We check-in with educators via virtual conferences, provide virtual platforms where they can network with other educators and share their own successes and challenges, and encourage educators to be innovative in their facilitation styles and approaches.

Within this experience we collaborate with teachers to facilitate the flow of student access to a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) aligned program and curriculum that teaches students about the importance of entrepreneurship, design thinking, emerging technology, and sustainability and their role and opportunities within these spaces. For many teachers and students this is their first invitation to teach and study within these content areas and it is our mission to make sure that it is not the last.

Photo courtesy of Youth Entrepreneurship Curriculum Team

The benefits of safe spaces in Education.

Students have flourished within these settings and educators have shared that they have noticed vast improvements in their students’ behaviors toward school. Educators have also associated these positive behaviors with an increase in student performance in other core content areas as well. Students are more motivated to overcome challenges in math, english, and history because they are realizing how each content area can interconnect and help them get one step closer to their future aspirations.

We acknowledge the challenges our under resourced communities face and have found that these supportive environments directly align with student success. It is in these extensions of support and opportunity, that all students can gain equity in education.

Fostering and sustaining the integration of safe spaces in the classroom leads to lasting change.

We work alongside educators every day to create a sense of community that helps teachers feel connected, safe and supported in implementing a new program and curriculum. So that they can extend that same grace to their students who are navigating a new program and curriculum as well. So, by harnessing the ideals of safe spaces we hope to start a chain reaction within classrooms where young innovators and entrepreneurs can feel comfortable in failing forward towards the pursuit of their goals and dreams.

The Youth Entrepreneurship team and I aspire to make Design Thinking, Sustainability, Entrepreneurship, and Emerging technology an exciting and engaging new venture for students. We take great pride in being an initial stop along our students journey towards careers in Science and technology.

We hope our partnership with our community of schools empowers students to leverage the entrepreneurial mindset in way that prepares them for success. So, that when asked, even though they may still not know the answer to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” they will feel confident in knowing that the possibilities are endless and that they can take comfort in knowing that they can be whatever and whomever they want to be.

We invite all educators to create a safe space or platform for students within their schools and classrooms. Where students are invited to create and express their innovative ideas, build meaningful partnerships, share their academic and career aspirations, and even develop an entrepreneurial mindset.

When these supportive communities are established whether it be in a virtual or in person setting, educators can meet students where they are, and begin the process of working alongside their students towards building a better future.

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