You or someone you know is in high school and has a great business idea that they think would work well. How do they make this idea a reality? Who do they approach to seek guidance and get tips? Youth Innovators is a great place to start and unleashes the innovative potential of youth.
Founded in August 2013 by high school student William Lawrence and his team (consisting of fellow Bishop Allen Academy students), the Youth Innovators (YI) group helps students get an idea of the way businesses work and provides them with the skills required to achieve their goals through workshops, conferences, etc.
Youth Innovators is focused entirely on high school students, aged 14 to18. William says that this group is at an age where they are mature enough to undertake their own venture while also flexible in terms of major responsibilities. Other entrepreneurship programs and incubators normally do not allow anyone younger than 18 to participate, so Youth Innovators provides similar opportunities to the demographic that is often neglected.
The idea for the group came about after William started two tech companies on his own through an organization called Startup Weekend. After having done that, he realized how much the entrepreneurial process was able to teach him.
He also found out that a lot of the things necessary to succeed in the real world are not taught at school and are achieved through experience.
William understood that there was a huge learning gap that needed to be filled for young people to succeed once they are outside of the classroom and says that Youth Innovators helps bridge that gap by enabling students to seek experiential learning through innovation.
Like any new venture, William and his team had their share of difficulties while starting out. The biggest challenge according to him was probably being taken seriously.
“When a bunch of ‘kids’ take on the ambitious goal of fixing the flaws of the current education system by putting students in control of their own ventures, some people thought it was a little farfetched but every person we met believed in our mission and wanted to support us. At the end of the day, high school students run Youth Innovators, and while others may see that as a disadvantage, I think it is our most valuable asset,” said the 17-year-old who is also a student trustee on the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
The group enjoyed the success of a conference last month that attracted more than 200 aspiring students, over $13,000 in sponsorships and a line-up of speakers and mentors. Presenters included keynote speaker John Baker, CEO of educational technology company Desire2Learn and workshop leaders included Two-Bite Brownie founder Mike Tevlin, former Commodore Computers CEO Robert H. Lane, and successful businesswoman Claudia Harvey, co-founder of Dig It Apparel Inc.
A survey was conducted after the event and 91% of those who attended rated the conference as ‘Excellent’ or ‘Very Good’. When asked about their next steps after event, 50% wanted to stay in contact with the YI community and 39% wanted to start their own ventures.
When the group started out, they established relationships with experienced professionals and organizations by tapping into their own personal networks but as Youth Innovators started to expand, the members reached out to organizations that were willing to help their cause.
“As Youth Innovators began to grow we needed organizations and people with more diverse skills and experience to bring a more holistic network to our members. So we began establishing relationships with professionals and organizations that either helped youth, developed entrepreneurs or both. We soon found that many people were willing to help Youth Innovators succeed because our mission was really relevant and innovative. For this reason we developed working relationships with organizations like Rotary Etobicoke, MaRS, DECA Ontario, The Next Big Thing and Shad Valley because they all brought value to our organization and they were genuinely interested in developing future world leaders,” said William.
William added that he and his team are excited about their plans for this year and want to present more hands on opportunities for students to launch their own ventures.
YI hopes to start off 2014 with two events that focus on coming up with an idea to start a venture.
The first event is the Idea Factory which is a daylong think-tank event that will take problems through the innovative process in order to develop a business plan and a potential venture.
The second is a partnership with Startup Weekend, a global grassroots movement of active and empowered entrepreneurs who are learning the basics of founding startups and launching successful ventures. Youth Innovators will be working with Startup Weekend to host Startup Weekend Toronto Youth, a 54-hour event where aspiring entrepreneurs come together to share ideas, form teams, build products and ultimately launch a startup.
Although many people think of him as a business guy, William thinks his true passion is advocating for people who often do not have a voice. He sees himself pursuing a law degree and working either in international relations or social entrepreneurship, which is applying business and management skills to tackle chronic societal problems with sustainable solutions.
His advice for young people who want to make a difference using their ideas is — act now and think later.
“As young people, we are at a period in our life where we have the freedom to explore and experiment with ideas with minimal consequences. In other words, it’s now or never. So stop thinking about how your idea can change the world and start changing the world now; then you can stop to think about the impact you’ve had. And if you fail, it changes nothing. In fact, through failure you will gain valuable experience that you can then use to develop future success,” the young student said.
Asked about how he manages both schoolwork and the YI program, he said, “School is work, Youth Innovators is fun. As such, I always make time for my school work but I find myself excited to stay up late doing things for Youth Innovators. I think the trick is very little sleep.”