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Sarah Hernholm wants to replace the annoying St. Louis conversation starter, “Where’d you go to high school?” with, “What business did you launch?”
Through her non-profit startup Whatever it Takes, or WIT, Hernholm is infusing St. Louis (and the rest of the country) with teen entrepreneurs. High school teens are put in cohorts of 15 and meet weekly outside of school to work on starting their own businesses. The program, based in San Diego, with additional locations in St. Louis, Austin and NYC, aims to harness teens’ curiosity and allow them to create socially driven business enterprises. Along the way, they earn college credit and learn self-advocacy and empathy, and Hernholm couldn’t be prouder. We spoke with her to learn more about the program and what’s coming up next.
What makes WIT unique?
WIT is the only college credit social entrepreneur and leadership course in the country for high school teens. There’s no other organization [like WIT] providing college credit, so in that way, it’s a value add. Our organization believes in real world application, and what happens as a result is teens get a feel for hustle and grit. They have to come up with an idea, create a business plan, design logos and develop websites. It’s not pretend.
How did WIT get started?
WIT has been in existence for five years, but not in this form. It began as a TV idea. I had a career in TV and film, and then I was an elementary school teacher. I started to think, “What if I combined the two?” I pitched an idea to do a reality show with youth improving the community. So we set things in motion, got the footage, and the kids did a great project. That’s when the people who knew about it started saying, “We want this at my school.” I didn’t set out to do this, but to me, it all makes sense now, with my background. The path isn’t always straight.
Have you heard Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk about that—the path that isn’t straight? Was it that those people are butterflies?
Hummingbirds. Yes. She calls them hummingbirds. That talk helped me refine questions for WIT. We don’t have teens figure out what they are passionate about now. We ask, “What are you curious about?” Curiosity gives you permission to try things.
Why choose St. Louis?
When it came time to look at cities, St. Louis came to mind. One of my friends, Travis Brantingham, who I went to high school with is now the principal there and shared WIT’s passion for getting teens involved in entrepreneurship. He helped get the first year up and running, and we ran it out of Principia. We ran it out of Principia, but we didn’t do what we have done in other cities, which is bring in teens from different schools. When we moved to CIC@CET this year, we opened it up to all all walks of life, grades levels, public, private and charter schools. Now we have teens from multiple schools, including Principia, Crossroads and Ritenour in our program.
Why is entrepreneurship important for teens?
There’s no other place teens can fail and have no repercussions. Not in sports—that impacts scholarships. Not class—that impacts your GPA and college. WIT teaches teens to fail and get feedback. Entrepreneurship is the best teaching vehicle. It’s the one profession where people brag about their failures. Teens already have the desire to risk, why not channel it?
How does the process work?
We have an online application and then 48 hours after filling it out, they should get a message to line up a Skype interview with a former WIT alum. Our alumni are able to read if the other teen is ready for WIT and they can figure out if the person they are talking to really wants it. Sometimes adults want their kids to get involved, and the desire isn’t there. But teens feel more comfortable talking with other teens, so our alumni can find out.
How have events connected people with WIT in St. Louis?
Last weekend [January 23-24], we hosted Meeting of the Minds. It’s an hour and a half lunch at CIC @ CET. There’s something beautiful with Meeting of the Minds. People come together to see how they can add value to the programs and see what can happen when we all care about teens and entrepreneurs. That day 25 people said, “I want to be part of the conversation.” We even started working in partnership with Naretha Hopson, founder of Ever Appropriate Etiquette Institute, to put on an event focused on helping the younger generation of entrepreneurs. This is WIT in action—working together to do ‘Whatever It Takes’ to support the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs. We have another Meeting of the Minds March 5.
What is the one thing you’d like people to know about WIT?
If they are an adult, I’d like them to think, “I’d love to get involved.” If they are and adult with kids, “I need to get my kid involved.”
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