Ever since feeling undervalued as a teenager, Frank Pobutkiewicz has been tapping the potential of high school students with remarkable success.
It started shortly after he graduated from Boston University and created a series of United Nations debate teams with students. Competing at summit competitions around the world, the teams won a handful of awards and continue to collect accolades to this day.
After a year of success with students abroad, school officials and parents began urging Pobutkiewicz to run an educational program in the U.S.
“I wanted to get out of the form of debate I was doing, and I also happened to be working at the Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square,” Pobutkiewicz remembers. “So I’m sitting there surrounded by all these entrepreneurs. I started thinking what a perfect vehicle it was to test a startup program.”
From that idea Whiteboard Youth Ventures was formed to develop entrepreneurial skills in high school students.
“High schoolers are the most underrated section of our country,” Pobutkiewicz says. “People by far underestimate what these students are capable of. I’ve always felt that way.”
Whiteboard Youth Ventures Takes Shape
Whiteboard Youth Ventures began by developing a one-week crash course originally called the Young Entrepreneur Challenge in 2013 and later rebranded as the Global Startup Challenge.
To begin the high-intensity program, students from the U.S. and high performing schools around the world are told to come up with a practical business idea. Over the next week, they’re exposed to the various challenges that come with developing a business model and bringing a product to market.
Throughout that process, students receive support from mentors, business coaches, active entrepreneurs and other experts to learn skills such as presentation, market validation, web development and budgeting.
Pobutkiewicz describes the course as experiential education designed to develop skills in students that they can use for the rest of their lives.
The program currently takes place in Boston, which makes it easy for Pobutkiewicz to recruit mentors and allows students to hear from working entrepreneurs in person.
“The course is very much intertwined in the city, we don’t just sit in a classroom,” Pobutkiewicz says. “We go out to Venture Café in District Hall; we do office visits and meet with other founders. So we give a rounded view of what it’s like to start a company.”
After receiving positive feedback in Boston, Pobutkiewicz is planning to host the course in six different cities around the world in 2017, including Hyderabad, India, Santiago, Chile and Hong Kong.
Student Ideas Prompt Whiteboard Expansion
Adding locations isn’t the only way Whiteboard Youth Ventures is planning to evolve in 2017. The new year will also mark the beginning of the Whiteboard Incubator program.
The month-long incubator will give a select few entrepreneurs a support package to help them bring their businesses to life. Students will be given office space in the Cambridge Innovation Center and offered services such as marketing, sales, web development and mobile development.
In return Whiteboard Youth Ventures takes no stake in the company and will seek repayment only if the companies hit specified sales milestones.
The incubator program, like many good ideas, came to Pobutkiewicz naturally from the demand of the market.
“What we noticed was that after finishing the program the students wanted something more to further implement their business concepts,” Pobutkiewicz says. “But there isn’t much support for students to start their own ventures. All we’re doing is responding to what students want and what parents are willing to support.”
Applications for both the incubator program and Global Startup Challenge opened Dec.1. After a round of early acceptances Jan. 20, the window to apply to the incubator closes March 1. The first incubator program will take place June 25 through July 28.
Whiteboard Leaves a Mark
According to Pobutkiewicz, what makes Whiteboard Youth Ventures unique is its connection with the local startup scene.
“We’re very much engrained in the Boston startup community,” Pobutkiewicz says. “These other programs tend to be in their own bubbles, but we’re everywhere. The incubator will be hosted at the Cambridge Innovation Center, so students will be in working space with four hundred other founders busting their butts like everyone else.”
The company also has plans to expand the Global Startup Challenge to thirty programs by 2018 and add several more international locations.
Meanwhile, Pobutkiewicz’s belief in high school students is looking increasingly perceptive. Two students have already started companies after completing the Global Startup Challenge, including one that reached $40,000 in sales in its first six months.
“Each year, I have a different student leave a mark on me because they outperform what I’m expecting of them,” Pobutkiewicz says. “We’ll have students come in and they’re shy, then by the end of the course their presentation skills are through the roof. It’s fun to watch.”
When students are surpassing even Pobutkiewicz’s expectations, you know they’re really on to something.