Get Real: Business program teaches high school students entrepreneurial thinking

Tom Stone can’t believe this decades-old dream is actually happening.

A “real-life skills” entrepreneurship idea that started as a side conversation in community council meetings is now a reality for hundreds of high school students in the Wasatch County School District.

Months later, Stone still feels elated.

“When it finally came to be, when we walked out of that school board meeting and they were going to give us the money—if you’ve ever seen someone who wants to high five and jump around and giggle…it was us,” says Stone, chairman of the Wasatch Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) board.

CAPS is a high school educational program that pairs students with mentors and real-life business leaders to work on real-life projects together. CAPS isn’t the only program of its type in Utah. The Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA) started in Sandy a few years ago to deliver the same experience to students. Both programs work toward the same result: students get real-life business, marketing and research experience, and the chance to problem solve on a team.

Stone says he heard from many friends who graduated with high grades and test scores but couldn’t find a job that paid more than 14 or 15 dollars an hour. The kids didn’t get much further—they lacked real-life skills for a changing business world.

“They didn’t have connections, didn’t know how to ask, didn’t know how to do it,” Stone says. “I had many of these kids talk to me and say, ‘I’m working at so-and-so waiting for my big thing to come.’”

Shifting perspectives

CAPS changes that. Here’s how it works, says Wasatch CAPS Director Ryan Starks. Juniors and seniors in the program travel to Heber’s Utah Valley University campus during high school class time, and end up at a new campus building dedicated to CAPS space. The space is full of large open areas, professional workspaces and modern technology—all for the benefit of the students. Students are put into groups and assigned a mentor and industry professional to work with during the next few months. Each industry professional has a real-world project that needs attention. The students immediately step in to help.

Jason Watt, career and technology education director for Wasatch County School District, says CAPS is a unique experience that’s designed to prepare kids for success in today’s economy.

“We don’t want to promote CAPS at the expense of other high school experiences,” says Watt. “But for years, employers have said these kids don’t have the professional skills, they don’t problem solve or collaborate. And that’s been hard to teach in a traditional environment. If you want your kid to be a leader in what he or she is considering, this is the place.”

Starks says the projects differ, with focuses ranging from business, medicine, design, software development, to the environment. One group, for example, works with a local hospital administrator to create a business plan that explores the best use for a recently inherited swimming pool on the property. Another group works with Rooftop Anchor Inc. to redesign and manufacture a critical piece on the anchor system that helps workers remain safe on the job.

London Halls is a Wasatch High School senior who joined the CAPS program this fall. She and two other students work with the Utah Jazz to develop a marketing plan that increases the number of Utah Jazz license plates in the state. One thing she’s learned is how much it takes to get the right information from the right people.

“We ended up having to call all the Department of Motor Vehicles in Utah and get different information. It’s taken us in a lot of different directions than we would have thought. We’ve worked with lots of people in the state government. You wouldn’t expect that with working on a license plate for the Utah Jazz,” Halls says with a laugh.

The mentor for this group is Craig Davis, who works at a marketing company called Halls says Davis comes in each week to chat with the group about where they’re heading.

“That’s been awesome because as teenagers, we have absolutely no idea what is possible. Having someone with real experience is cool because we can ask him anything and he tells us and is really blunt with us.”

Halls says she was initially worried about working in a group with people she didn’t know. But today they’re all friends. Teenagers are creative, she says, and it’s rewarding to hear ideas from different kinds of people.

“The main thing I’ve learned is that just because someone tells you ‘no’ or ‘it won’t work,’ it doesn’t mean that it’s over,” Halls says. “There’s always a different way to approach something. I think that’s been something that’s helped me in graduating. I’ll have different ideas about what I want to do and it might not work out but it doesn’t mean you just need to stop—you just need to approach it from a different angle.”

Starks says this is exactly the kind of result CAPS produces.

“They really gain confidence,” he says. “For most of these students, they’ve never had real-world experience. This gives them the confidence to interact with high-level people. And to learn from these people is paramount in their development.”

Finding mentors

Starks says mentors can be retired subject matter experts or professionals currently working in their field. When there is an obstacle or challenge within a student group, the mentor makes sure the students are on the right path.

Stone says Heber Valley tends to attract retired professionals, so the area is rich with untapped mentors who want to volunteer and who have the time.

“They’ve ‘been there, done that,’” Stone says. “We have the most amazing amount of people to choose from. And they come in and say, ‘How can we help?’”

Halls strongly encourages other students to sign up for the CAPS experience. She already sees the benefits herself.

“Just being able to put on my applications to different things that I’ve worked with the Utah Jazz—that’s something that’s really impressive and at the same time it’s teaching you so much about the real world,” Hall says.

CAPS can take 100 students each semester, and the program was full when it opened in the fall of 2016. “It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve worked on in my 20 years of education for sure,” Watt says.

As for Stone? He’s still elated. Stone says he gets to help students gain skills to create their own business space in this world.

“We are feeling the weight of making sure it is—and we believe [it is]—the greatest CAPS program in America.”