It’s no secret that many young people are interested in directing their talent toward solving important social and environmental issues. But, what is not as well known is how much support there is for them to turn that interest into a new enterprise: we have seen tremendous growth of entrepreneurship programs for high school students over the last few years. In Illinois, many schools have implemented programs that combine mentoring from real-world entrepreneurs with education about ideation, market research, and business plan development. Some end up starting new ventures, others benefit from exposure to universal characteristics of entrepreneurship such as self-sufficiency, resiliency and creative problem solving. Here are three excellent examples of high school entrepreneurship programs in Chicagoland that are building the next generation of social entrepreneurs.

Incubatoredu is year-long course that gives high school students in the Chicago suburbs the opportunity to create and fully develop their own product or service with the help of entrepreneurs and business experts who serve as volunteer mentors, guiding student teams through the processes of ideation, market research, and business plan development. It originally started at Barrington High School and is now available to students in five high schools throughout District 211 in Illinois.

One stand out impact company that grew out of the Palatine High School program is ShoeMonkey. While making it easier for parents to buy healthy shoes for their children, ShoeMonkey also reduces waste in the shoe industry and provides access to shoes for those in need.

Eric Wasowicz, an Impact Engine investor, played the role of community champion Palatine High School’s launch of He gathered 30 outside business leaders, including Impact Engine Investment Committee member and investor Greg Lernihan, to act as mentors for individual teams and coaches that dedicate time to teaching the curriculum.

Since it’s launch the program has seen an increase in the number of students who want to build impactful businesses. According to Wasowicz, “The curriculum is a natural fit with today’s high school student that feels the urge to start a business but also help their community and society at the same time. ShoeMonkey is a perfect example. I think these students are seeing that someday all businesses will have a socially impactful component.”

Greg Lernihan added, “I am wildly impressed with the impact that has had on high school students schools throughout the USA. STEP (Save The Earth Project), the 2016 pitch competition winner, is working to turn restaurant food waste into compost. I am very optimistic about the millennial generation making meaningful change in the world, both as impact entrepreneurs and as consumers demanding products with a purpose.”

Illinois Math and Science Academy

The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) has a number of programs supporting the development of young social entrepreneurs.  

  • IMSA TALENT (Total Applied Learning for Entrepreneurs) is an extracurricular program helping Illinois high school students launch new business ventures. It hosted its eighth annual Power Pitch in 2016, including a Social Good Category for the first time due to so much interest.
  • The Social Entrepreneurship (SocEnt) program is a branch of the student-run Leadership Education and Development program. The program cultivates global thinkers that strive to understand the complex issues facing their communities, and how to create positive, lasting social change within by them using social entrepreneurship as a tool. Through the program, students identify and research the root causes of a social issue within their local community and then create a viable social venture that they can take into the real world.  
  • IN2, The Steve and Jamie Chen Center for Innovation & Inquiry, an IMSA innovation center in Aurora, is designed to ignite collaboration and entrepreneurial activity among students, educators, business and the community – specifically to design prototypes and launch new ideas to advance the human condition. During the 2016-2017 school year, the Impact LaunchPad will support a promising early social entrepreneurship venture (SEV) or community impact organization led by current or former IMSA community members.

One specific active social entrepreneur getting support from these IMSA programs is IMSA Sophomore Abinaya Ramakrishnan, who won an IMSA TALENT prize for The Muzic Academy, a nonprofit that provides affordable music lessons to over 2,000 students across Illinois and invests its more than $250,000 in revenue in bringing music educators to schools that cannot afford one.

Future Founders

Future Founders, based out of 1871, offers two programs designed to immerse students in a vibrant entrepreneurial community and connect youth with mentors, while also helping them build a toolkit of entrepreneurial skills.

  • Future Founders Discover is a series of high-energy workshops that introduce 5th-10th graders to entrepreneurial skills in partner school classrooms. During the program, students explore entrepreneurship and develop professional skills through fun, volunteer-led activities.
  • Future Founders Ignite combines entrepreneurial experiences and mentoring to inspire 10th-12th graders to develop their own business ideas. The year long program at partner schools helps students create business plans that will be showcased at adVENTURE Expo.

According to Scott Issen, President & CEO of Future Founders, “Ultimately, we hope students create their own opportunity – whether they build their own businesses, work for startups or bring an entrepreneurial perspective to whatever they do.  A growing trend among our student entrepreneurs is to create businesses that help the community or have a social component to them. Students are more interested than ever in solving societal problems and improving the communities in which they live.”