Peter Rowan in the classroom at Mid-Pacific

Mid-Pacific entrepreneur lab preps students to catalyze societal change

Summit + Mid-Pacific

Oahu K-12 Schools
Place Manoa
Text Will Caron
Art Scot Allen
Thread School of the Future

Mid-Pacific is a school with a rich history of innovation. In a world of evolving technology, Mid-Pacific faculty embrace an evolving platform, to prepare students for the future. With an immersive suite of technology programs that utilizes state-of-the-art equipment, innovation on the Mid-Pacific campus is scanned digitally, printed in 3-D and experienced in virtual reality. The Mid-Pacific classroom is an environment where learning is fun and engaging, and where students are challenged to question, inquire and imagine.

In 1984, Peter Rowan was a senior in a New York high school. He wanted to spend his last summer before college in Maine, where his parents owned a summer cottage. His parents told him that if he wanted to make that happen, he needed to find a job. Realizing that his chances of being hired for a suitable summer job in Maine were slim, given how few connections he had there, Rowan decided to start his own business instead.

“I obtained the tax records for the town—this little fishing village—which separated people into year-round residents and part-time residents,” Rowan says. “I figured part-time residents that owned cottages, like my parents, would be less inclined to want to paint their own cottages, so I targeted the part-time residents with mailers marketing my services as a house painter. I convinced a friend to come with me to Maine and ended up starting a small business called the Cottage Painting Company.”

Rowan maintained connections with the cottage owners throughout college, and was able to return each summer with a growing client list and a growing crew of employees working under him. Today, Rowan has a successful career as an entrepreneur under his belt, but he still speaks fondly of that initial startup.

The fundamental question Rowan asked when thinking about what kind of job he wanted to create for himself was, “What are the needs in a community?” And this is the question Rowan teaches students at Mid-Pacific to ask in the Entrepreneur’s Lab program, launched in the fall of 2017.

Over a two semester period, a group of students in the program will build a social enterprise from a needs-first perspective. In the first semester, students will research ideas and develop business plans. In the second, they will begin building the actual enterprises, culminating in a “Shark Tank”-like competition.

“We call it ‘Guppy Tank,’” says Paul Turnbull, president of the Mānoa Valley school.

The idea for the lab grew out of Mid-Pacific eXploratory (or MPX), an innovative, interdisciplinary program, launched in 2010, featuring a project-based, community-centered curriculum as the primary focus of student work. Headed by Mark Hines, the MPX curriculum encourages freshmen and sophomores to synthesize their knowledge of language arts, social studies, mathematics, science, technology and engineering through participation in a collaborative, “real-world problem-solving” setting.

The Entrepreneur’s Lab picks up where the MPX program leaves off, taking the interdisciplinary skill set and intersectional way of problem solving taught to 9th and 10th graders and running with it.

“The academic research in Entrepreneur’s Lab is geared toward solving problems with new approaches,” says Turnbull. “It’s all about solving really interesting problems with solutions that allow us to really put their ideas into action.”

And that aspect of the program—putting business and technology learning into practical exercise—is what separates Mid-Pacific’s program from other programs at the high school level.

“Traditional social studies programs will touch briefly on economics, in a macro sense, but they don’t often have real, practical experiences for students,” says Tom McManus, the principal for Mid-Pacific’s high school. “The skills that go into the Entrepreneur’s Lab are the same skills that students traditionally don’t develop until college, but we want them to have a head start. This includes the ability to create business plans, to work with a community that has a specific need, to exhibit empathy in the creation of a solution to fill that need, and to work in a collaborative way, both with the client and with one another to solve a real-life problem.

The program runs on a two-semester cycle. Each year, roughly 24 students enrolled in the program will spend their first semester in Entrepreneurial Studies, a project-based course with educational elements both online and in the classroom, as well as practical interaction with real communities and real people. During this semester, students will interview community members and identify a specific need that an innovative entrepreneurial idea could help address.

“It’s a kind of customer discovery process, where they look for real problems,” McManus says. “With that experience interviewing many people and identifying a problem, they will then try to come up with a solution. That’s the goal for the first semester: find out what it is that people in the community need.”

“In the second semester, they’re going to scale up their prototypes into business plans and then they’re going to enter a business plan competition with a pot of tens of thousands of dollars,” says Turnbull. “The end goal is to create a working business to support and execute the solutions the students have come up with for the problems in their communities.”

Businesses need seed money, of course, and Mid-Pacific has this covered with funding provided by private donors.

“We felt it was important to have skin in the game, so to speak, where the projects actually have money on the line,” Turnbull continues. “That led us to a fantastic conversation with one of our trustees, Kimberly Dey, who was completely supportive of the idea—so much so that she’s underwriting the cost of the program with a very generous donation.”

Because of the funding from Dey, the program has been able to launch its pilot year in 2017. The first class of juniors and seniors has learned the lean startup process while researching real, market-driven problems that need solving.

“It’s really exciting because the program allows students to take an idea all the way up to the cusp of execution, and the panel of judges could decide to fund those ideas,” says Turnbull.

Instead of working at the mall over the summer, these students could suddenly find themselves at the helm of a start-up they created themselves in school.

“And the final outcome out of that, I think, goes far beyond any individual or any individual team,” says Turnbull. “This program has the power to develop a whole new generation of entrepreneurs in Honolulu that can bring great, positive changes to the wider Hawai‘i community.

“When it comes to entrepreneurship, I fundamentally believe that adults don’t always have enough imagination and flexibility to create radical ideas to address hitherto unsolved problems,” he continues. “The real potential that students have is immense. And this program answers that by encouraging new sets of ideas and channeling youthful energy into an already existing network. It’s going to be phenomenal.”

“We want our students to be able to interact with real people and with real world problems. We want them to have that experience of building something from the ground up, because the world is increasingly like that,” says McManus. “I think some readers might have an immediate association with the word entrepreneurship as being strictly business-oriented. But what we want to impress upon the students is that entrepreneurial skills have the ability to create a system or a solution for endemic, social problems. Entrepreneurship has the ability to do more than generate wealth. It has the ability to make the world a better place.”


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