Why This Youth Nonprofit Teaches Entrepreneurship as a Mindset

It’s summer vacation and you’re looking to make some money, so you start a lemonade stand. Suddenly you discover you don’t have cups. Do you: a) shut down your business, or b) find a solution to work around your problem?

When Boston-based entrepreneurship educator Vicky Wu Davis discussed the hypothetical problem with her seven-year-old son, he had an idea: “Use bowls!”

Wu Davis is the Executive Director and Founder of Youth CITIES, whose acronym stands for “creating impact through innovation, entrepreneurship, and sustainability.” The nonprofit teaches adolescents and teens how to be entrepreneurs. 

But that doesn’t mean Wu Davis is trying to churn out future CEOs or VCs. Rather, she teaches entrepreneurialism as a skill set, a way of approaching problems, that can be applied in any job, industry, or area of one’s life.

When life gives you lemons? Start a lemonade stand. When your lemonade stand doesn’t have cups? Use bowls.

“Pivot, shift—all these buzzwords boil down to how adaptable you are to your circumstances,” says Wu Davis. “Are you rigid? Or if you get knocked down, can you figure out another way?”

After many years spent working in the video game industry and starting ventures of her own, Wu Davis launched Youth CITIES as a pet project ten years ago. Now it’s a full-time job, with Youth CITIES running bootcamps every spring and fall, mini-hackathons every month at CIC, and more.

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Students come from public, private, and charter schools all over Massachusetts, and sometimes even from bordering states. In addition to geographical diversity, Wu Davis strives for gender balance among participants, and at least half of her students come from financially constrained communities.

“I’m a firm believer that neither gender nor zip code nor any other identifying factor should define someone’s potential,” she says. “It certainly adds to their unique value proposition, how they’re going to view a problem, and how they’re going to solve it, but it shouldn’t define their potential.”

Empowering youth of traditionally marginalized or minority identities is a key motivator behind Youth CITIES. But there’s a reason Wu Davis doesn’t run girl-only bootcamps, for example. “Diversity is a two-sided coin,” she says. “In order for women to be fully empowered, men also need to know what women are capable of. They need to see it.”

As Wu Davis sees it, young people learning about entrepreneurship for the first time are real entrepreneurs, and she treats them as such. Through immersion in their local entrepreneurial ecosystem—like attending program sessions at CIC or Lab Central or pitching in front of established innovators at Venture Café—students get to see diverse role models from a young age and build social capital within networks they might otherwise not have access to.

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There are long term implications to this. “People carry implicit bias, and there are also times when hiring and collaboration choices aren’t based on bias but just what contacts you have,” says Wu Davis. “When putting your money and name on the line, you’re going to go with people who you’ve worked with and trust.”

“If your network is wider and more diverse,” she explains, “the pool of who you can choose to work with is automatically going to be more diverse.”

Mapping one’s network has become standard in Youth CITIES curricula. Wu Davis calls it “circle of resources.” Imagine a dart board with concentric rings. The bullseye represents your personal skills and resources, and each circle represents a level of contacts and their respective skills and resources. The further you go from the center, the more distant your connection to a person. Whereas people in your inner rings are easier to approach and likely to offer more support for less in return, you’ll either need a compelling story or enough money to access the outer rings.

Exercises like this help kids identify resources they didn’t realize were available to them. And the entrepreneurial mindset, for Wu Davis, is about recognizing what you do have, not what you wish you had.

“I teach students how to look at limited resources or unexpected obstacles not as roadblocks but instead as design constraints,” she says. “It just requires a little more creativity in your solutions.”

Students flex those muscles through hands-on projects, such as the most recent bootcamp’s winning venture, an app called Ahead of the Curve. Each of the app’s features were envisioned as a solution to the winner’s firsthand challenges of wearing a scoliosis brace. Other students have filed provisional patents or started entrepreneurship clubs in their schools. 

Meanwhile, the program’s inaugural year winner came back as the closing keynote and a competition judge years later.

“I remember Dougan [Sherwood, Co-Founder of CIC St. Louis] saying that Youth CITIES is like the baseball farm system, where you might play for the PawSox before you play for the Red Sox,” Wu Davis recalls. “We take young, up-and-coming entrepreneurs, cultivate their talents, then launch them into the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.” 

 

Photos courtesy of Vicky Wu Davis