Why We Taught High School Kids About Startups — And What They Taught Me

We often find insights were we least expect them

This past weekend, as a mentor at the Young Founders School, I taught high school students aged 12–17 years old about all things Startup — starting from the problem identification and market sizing to business models and fundraising.

On Friday morning, instead of sleeping in for the weekend, they came in by 8 am and were learning about how to make a pitch deck.

After an initial overview, Billy (Founder of YFS) guided them through business models and strategy — how to choose an idea, making it scalable, learning about total addressable markets and so forth. Each of these topics was taught so that they can build their own slides around it.

Why We Did It?

YFS has their purpose well articulated on their website.

For me, I did it bc I truly believe high school kids can change the world. I believe this because we started Pathao (and 3 other companies) while I was still in high school.

What They Taught Me

The team I mentored.

Two 8th graders, two eleventh graders.

I expected some weird junior-senior status quo thing. (reasons below.)

But no.

All discussing ideas, all up in each other’s face, no time for status management.

It was beautiful.

They sat very close to each another. Their interactions were not smooth or organized. They abruptly went on each other's slides and started modifying, following no plan or strategy. When they spoke, they spoke in short bursts: “That one! No, there!”

Their entire technique might be described as

trying a bunch of stuff together.

Compare this with today’s business schools and corporates.

I’ve been in both rooms and can tell you a few things that struck out.

Folks working in a corporate would begin this task methodically. They’d talk and think strategically. They’d examine the materials. They would ‘brainstorm’ and ask thoughtful, savvy questions. They’d generate numerous options, then stack rank them to best-fit. They would then choose one strategy, divide up the tasks and started building.

On the surface, this would seem professional, rational, and intelligent.

In practice, that’s usually not the case.

Daniel Coyle has studied and described this phenomenon as follows:

“[they] appear to be collaborating, but in fact they are engaged in a process psychologists call status management. They are figuring out where they fit into the larger picture: Who is in charge? Is it okay to criticize someone’s idea? What are the rules here? Their interactions appear smooth, but their underlying behavior is riddled with inefficiency, hesitation, and subtle competition. Instead of focusing on the task, they are navigating their uncertainty about one another. They spend so much time managing status that they fail to grasp the essence of the problem”

I call it the yessir phenomenon. (Scientific illustration here)

The kids appear disorganized on the surface. But when you view them as a single entity, their behavior is efficient and effective.

The kids appear disorganized on the surface. But when you view them as a single entity, their behavior is efficient and effective.

They stand shoulder to shoulder and work energetically together. They move quickly, spotting problems and offering help. They try things, take risks, and notice outcomes, which guides them toward effective solutions.

This weekend the school kids wrote up financial models, set their pre-money valuation, and pitch to real VCs — stuff that folks twice their age can’t do right.

The kids were able to do this not because they are smarter but because they work together in a smarter way. They are tapping into a simple and powerful method in which a group of ordinary people can create a performance far beyond the sum of their parts.

This is true Startup DNA.

Not extraordinary people. But extraordinary teams.

2+2 = 10

At Pathao, we’ve been trying to create a similar culture of idea meritocracy.

Ahmed Fahad is Head of Product at Pathao, the fastest growing start-up in Bangladesh. He is a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum. He shares his experiences building startups in Bangladesh on his newsletter.

Founding team / VP of Product @ Pathao (pathao.com); Global Shaper @ World Economic Forum. (ahmedfahad.com)