Entrepreneurial Summer Camps Teach Business Basics and More

Russ Banham

Business-themed camps offer tweens and teens the chance to learn essential skills that can help them later in life. Whether school-sponsored, run by chambers of commerce, or nonprofits, the summer camps let kids discover what being an entrepreneur means and why business is about more than just making money.

As kids head back to school, memories of summer camp won’t be just about swimming, hiking, and archery. Some will have returned from summer vacations with a deeper understanding of business and entrepreneurship. Camps teaching kids how to start, operate, and lead a business sign up thousands of students–from elementary school up through high school–eager to learn basic entrepreneurial and management skills.

Depending on the program, campers generally collaborate on finding a solution for a specific need or problem, putting forward plans to develop and refine the business solution under the tutelage of mentors and executives, who review their progress and provide consultative advice.

It’s business development as a fun summer activity, with an emphasis on ethical leadership, diverse ideas, critical thinking, and inclusive teamwork—skills that are under the microscope in many companies today.

“While business is the vehicle, children must understand their decisions have an effect beyond the generation of money,” said Amber Wakem, executive director of Start-Up Kids Club, an Austin, Texas-based summer camp for children focused on entrepreneurship, mentorship, and project-based learning. “Our goal is to create a mindful generation that can change the world.”

Starting Up

A variety of summer camps have sprouted across the country like mushrooms after a summer rainstorm, many supported by local chambers of commerce, organizations like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, public entities like elementary and high schools, and nonprofits like Camp Bizsmart.

Camp Bizsmart was founded by Mike and Peggy Gibbs, a retired married couple in their 60s who enjoyed successful business careers—Peggy as an executive in Silicon Valley and Mike as an industrial psychologist at General Electric and Texas Instruments. “We supply talent and curriculum to schools across the country for a summer camp on a revenue-sharing basis,” explained Mike.

The nonprofit organization offers tweens and teens the opportunity to solve real world problems presented by the CEOs of Silicon Valley companies. Over a 10-day period, students work in teams mentored by industry experts to develop solutions. On the last day of camp, they present their ideas to venture capital veterans.

This Shark Tank concept also is in play at Camp Enterprise, a three-day summer camp in Loretto, Minnesota, a 30-minute drive from Minneapolis. Camp Enterprise is operated by the Rotary Club of Edina, which has members throughout the state. Approximately 80 Rotarians volunteer to put on the camp each summer.

“High school juniors and seniors interested in learning about the free enterprise system, entrepreneurship, and ethical business practices come together in workshops led by business leaders from our clubs and communities,” said Sam Thompson, who leads the four-decade-old Camp Enterprise and is the president of Transitions in Business, a Minneapolis-based mergers and acquisitions intermediary. “We make sure to embed the guiding principles of the Rotarians into the workshops—service, fellowship, diversity, integrity, and leadership.”

Teams of between six and eight students are selected to perform traditional business roles like CEO, CFO, and head of marketing. Each team is given a case study with a specific business problem, such as entering a new market or raising prices. The students prepare a business plan describing their solution, which is presented on the final day of camp to a group of Rotarians acting the part of venture capital providers.

“Each student must speak at the presentation in their particular role, with the `CFO’ describing how the numbers work and the `HR leader’ talking about the needed skill sets,” Thompson said. “We then select at least five students to receive $1,000 higher education scholarships.”

Return on Investment

The summer camps do more than teach business skills. Start-Up Kids, for instance, was created to “unlock the genius lurking inside every child,” said Wakem, a former elementary school teacher. She launched the camp because her eight-year-old daughter Harper has dyslexia and was enduring anxiety and depression at school, affecting her self-confidence. “She did not feel capable in a traditional school setting,” Wakem confided.

When Harper was in second grade, out of the blue she announced she wanted to start her own business. “She set up a coffee stand on the corner she called `Flippin’ Coffee,’” Wakem said. “To learn about coffee, she interviewed a barista at Starbucks. As I watched her transform into a confident child, I had an epiphany—to ensure children have an opportunity to succeed in life beyond their performance in a classroom.”

Wakem found a local backer, a manufacturer of 3D printing machines, to fund an eight-week-long summer camp in 2018. It was free to the more than 350 children who attended, spread across three groups—grades 3-5; 6-8; and 9-12.

“We built the curriculum around the use of a 3D printer,” she said. “Kids created a business plan for a new product and presented their ideas to a group of venture capital executives. Those who were funded made their products, assisted by other campers. One child made a multi-level chess board for a couple dollars that later sold on the Internet for several hundred dollars.”

Camp Enterprise also has its share of successful entrepreneurs. “Two of our campers started a bath soap business called DaBomb Bath Fizzers that they developed in camp when they were 10- and-11-year-old girls,” said Thompson. “The company makes all kinds of bath bombs today that sell at retail stores and online.”

And campers have integrated the ideal of ethical business into their successes: A portion of the sales of DaBomb’s Earth Bomb product, which is shaped and colored like the planet, is donated to organizations supporting clean drinking water to communities across Africa. “It’s heartening to see our campers doing well by doing good,” Thompson said. “The power of companies to improve the world is unlimited.”