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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Children Are Natural Entrepreneurs

But that doesn't mean we can or should teach it in school.

November 13, 2017



When we were young, my older brother was something of a natural entrepreneur.

For the ’76 Bicentennial when he was ten and I was six, he and maybe half a dozen buddies decided to go for the Guinness Book of World Records for longest consecutive hours spent skateboarding. They would do it in our driveway in teams of two, 24 hours a day, fueled by snack chips and candy bars, resting/sleeping in the garage (below my bedroom) during their downtime.

They garnered local news coverage, and plenty of neighborhood onlookers - and if memory serves - a visit (or at least a phone call) from an actual Guinness representative. The record at the time was something over 100 hours, but the parents decided to call a halt on account of crankiness at a symbolic 76 hours. They didn’t seem to mind. They’d already achieved their goal of receiving attention, notice, praise.

Perhaps my brother would’ve been a good candidate for WeGrow, the planned private pre-school/Kindergarten to be specifically oriented around entrepreneurship. “In my book, there’s no reason why children in elementary schools can’t be launching their own businesses,” Rebekah Neumann, co-founder of WeGrow (along with her husband Adam) told Bloomberg.

WeGrow is an extension of the “We” brand which - as characterized by Bloomberg - “promotes a seamless integration of meaningful work and a purpose-driven existence—make a life, not just a living, the motto goes.” WeGrow comes after WeLive, communal living space and the core business, which was in turn spawned from WeWork, which provides shared workspaces. While WeGrow will start with the youngest grades, it will eventually expand all the way through 12th grade. The overall We vision is, in the words of Adam Neumann, to create a “capitalist kibbutz.”

Apparently appreciation for irony won’t be part of the WeGrow curriculum.

After the skateboard marathon my brother undertook his masterpiece, a recreation of the Disney Magic Kingdom’s “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” in our basement. A course to be navigated on a Big Wheel wound around the ping pong table and air hockey and other barriers. Flames were painted on cardboard that would flatten as the rider rolled by. My job as a seven-year-old was to raise a hockey stick in the air just before it decapitated the rider. When I was doing it too early for a proper scare, I was told to wait longer, which might’ve resulted in a bruised forehead or two.

The pièce de résistance was a large flashlight, dangling from the ceiling meant to mimic an oncoming train. A recording of shrieks and train noises enhanced the effect.

All told, it took three or four days to conceive and execute, after which the business ran for a matter of hours, as the noise and damage being done by a Big Wheel careening into the wood paneling was too much for our babysitter to stomach.

My brother’s memory is the entire enterprise took in around 60 cents, or about $2.44 in 2017 dollars.

The We people are correct that wee people are natural entrepreneurs, provided we see entrepreneurship as being rooted in the values of creativity, curiosity, and a desire for personal freedom and agency. Above all, children want to be acknowledged and heard, and free play is essential to their intellectual and social development.

Mom/Dad, Mom/Dad, Mom/Dad, Mom/Dad, Mom/Dad, watch this… is a constant refrain for a reason. A kindergarten that allows for creativity, curiosity, and personal agency sounds pretty good.

Of course they already exist. If you’re looking for one in your town, Google “Montessori.”

WeGrow isn’t about entrepreneurship so much as training the privileged youngs from an early age for their future roles as everyone else's terrible, narcissistic boss. The Neumanns have not yet even decided if they are non-profit or for profit, if they will fund the school themselves or charge the going rate of $30k per year for New York area private schools.

In many ways, the WeGrow vision is simply the flipside of the governing ethos of those who believe public schools primarily exist to, in the words of critical educator Peter Greene, “prepare children to be the worker bees of tomorrow.”

Greene tracks the explicitly stated rationales that reduce children to “products” to be made suitable for consumption by “the future corporate overlords.” To whit: 

Allan Golston of the Gates Foundation: “Businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools.”

Rex Tillerson when he was CEO of Exxon: “I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer. What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation.”

The Florida state legislature: “The purpose of the public education system of Florida is to develop the intellect of the citizens, to contribute to the economy, to create an effective workforce, and to prepare students for a job.”

As Greene says, this is an amazingly “narrow, cramped, tiny vision of education, a low bar to clear, an unworthy target at which to aim.” No doubt. 

Of course, a similar division can be detected in higher education, where public institutions are to be judged on their ability to churn out job-ready workers while privates will do whatever it is they do because they get to exist outside the worries of accountability.[1] There was a time when I had at least some faith in the notion of noblesse oblige, and we could count on some of those graduates of elite schools to see it as their duty to improve the lives of others, but that faith has been shaken.

And for the 80% of attendees of public institutions who graduate with an average of almost $30k in debt, I’m afraid taking the necessary risks required of entrepreneurs seems like a long shot.

I’m not too worried about the specific impact of WeGrow. If they can make it to year three it will be a surprise. Bloomberg paints the Neumann’s as a little goofy and a lot blithely overconfident. They are avatars of the new class of venture capitalist grifters who through nice talk and good pedigree manage to separate investors from their money.

But what happens when we get a generation of elites raised on the WeGrow ethos, which is far more capitalist than kibbutz and reinforces the notion that some will work and others will simply be rich?

Nothing good, particularly for entrepreneurship, which has always required outsiders who simply see the world differently. Those people must come from all walks of life, but we’re on our way to making that increasingly impossible.

[1] Please see Matt Reed’s recent post on the class divide of higher ed for more on this subject. 


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