E Squared – Driving Success in Culpeper County, VA

ARTICLE | Jun 19, 2014

A program called Entrepreneurial Energy (E Squared) has been an enormous success in Culpeper County, Virginia (pop. ~50,000).  It enables high school students to interact with local business people who help them prepare for life after secondary school.

Four Career & Technical elective classes oriented toward business are selected annually to participate in the program – two from each of two high schools.  From each classroom, teams of 3-5 students are chosen randomly, and two coaches from the business community are assigned to help two teams.  The assignment is to create a business, on paper, that makes and markets a real product or provides a real service.  There are no restrictions as long as the business is legal and ethical.  The end product is a written business plan followed by an oral presentation where the teams ask a panel of local business people, playing the role of venture capitalists, to finance the business.  A preliminary round of the competition provides the best six teams to compete in the Finals.  The brass ring is $5,000 in scholarship funds for each member of the winning team.

Before going into some of the details of the E Squared program, a little background will help the reader understand why it is so successful.  Culpeper has had a very active Chamber of Commerce for many years.  In 1997 the Chamber’s Executive Director frequently heard complaints from member businesses that Culpeper’s graduates were not ready for the workplace.  In addition to weak skills in writing and math, they particularly lacked the soft skills necessary to succeed.

Because Chamber members viewed this as a serious problem, the Executive Director organized an “Educational Summit” and invited school administrators, teachers, school board members, county and town administrators, elected officials, interested citizens, and interested business people to attend.  The day and a half summit was a great success and was attended by over one hundred.  The result of the summit was to form a committee consisting of leaders from the business community, education, and local government.  In 2000 this committee was formalized as Career Partners, Inc., a 501(c)(3).  The makeup of the board of directors is so important to the success of Career Partners that its members need to be listed:

From education

  • Superintendant of Schools
  • Director of Instruction
  • Career and Technical Administrator
  • Chairperson of the School Board
  • President of Germanna Community College

From government

  • Delegate to the Virginia General Assembly
  • County Administrator
  • Member of the County’s Board of Supervisors

From business

  • President & CEO of the Chamber of Commerce
  • CEO of the local hospital
  • Several active and retired members from the business community

(Culpeper is fortunate to have local executives from major corporations)

The board of directors met every month and engaged in several worthwhile efforts with the help of an executive director, paid for by grant funding.  In 2008 that funding dried up, and Career Partners had to decide to either shut down or find a way to move forward.  The latter course was chosen, and as often happens when money is not available, board members rose to the occasion by making Career Partners an all-volunteer organization.

E Squared simulates the experiences that entrepreneurs face when they have a business idea and seek venture capital to finance it.  The only difference is that the E Squared venture capital panelists are role-players.  E Squared began with a small group of students the first year. With success and interest from students, educators, and the business community, the program grew substantially the following year. In the process of refining the program, local businesses began to develop a keen interest in the program.  Career Partners was able to recruit several retired and active executives from the community to create, along with the teachers, a regimen that has been continually refined during six years of competition.  Below is a brief outline of the semester-long program:

  • Students are randomly placed in teams of 3-5
  • Each team decides on a business it would like to create
  • Local business people teach workshops
  • Pairs of business people act as coaches for 2-3 teams
  • Coaches meet with the teams at least weekly
  • Teams create a business plan using a specified template
  • Business plans and oral presentations are judged in a preliminary round and the six best teams compete in the finals
  • Continuous improvement steps are rigorously followed
    • All stakeholders are surveyed each year
    • A “Things Gone Right / Things Gone Wrong” meeting is held
    • Next year’s program is revised to address improvements needed

In addition to workshops and coaching, all done by local business people, special tools were developed to assist the teams in creating their business plans.  These can be found on the E Squared website, www.ESquaredCulpeper.com:

  • A business plan template which must be followed
  • A flowchart to guide teams through the semester
  • Rules of the competition

One of the unique aspects of E Squared is the high level of involvement from business leaders engaged in teaching workshops and in coaching.  These business people work closely with the classroom teachers to bring real-world experience and thought processes into the academic setting.  E Squared teaches wealth creation, teamwork, public speaking, hard work, meeting deadlines, confidence, and rational thought.

For a community the size of Culpeper County, E Squared involves a very significant number of individuals from the business community.  These volunteers assist 4 classroom teachers and the Career & Technical Administrator in working with 75-80 students.

  • 20 coaches spending many hours in the classrooms
  • 36 judges acting as venture capitalists.  Judges cannot be coaches.
  • 6 workshop presenters
  • 40+ corporate and individual sponsors who provide all funding

There are three levels of awards in the E Squared program but only the winning team members receive scholarship funding.

  • Scholarships - $5,000 for each member of the winning team.  Career Partners has awarded as much as $30,000 in one year to a team of six students.
  • Coaches’ Awards – each pair of coaches may pick 1 student from the 2 or 3 teams they coach if they believe this individual stands out as being exceptional and very likely to succeed in the business world.  Recipients receive an iPad.
  • Honor Society for special recognition (cords awarded for graduation)

As a critical part of continuous improvement, surveys of all stakeholders are conducted after each season.  The answers to three questions on the Student Survey this year are most gratifying:

Q:  Has your E Squared Experience opened your mind to considering a different career path? 

A:  40% answered YES

Q:  Has your E Squared experience motivated you or increased your desire to pursue additional post-high-school education? 

A:  63% answered YES

Q:  Would you consider the E Squared program valuable even if the scholarship grants were not available?

A:  87% answered YES

A student provided the following comment on this year’s survey:

“E Squared was murderous. It literally [was] the hardest thing I have done throughout high school. It totally dominated my life for the entire three months that we worked on it, but it was totally worth it. E Squared is something that everyone should do. I would absolutely suggest it to all my friends.”

Four of the most important aspects of the program are

  1. A continuous improvement process is exercised from year to year
  2. Career Partners is an all-volunteer organization
  3. The leadership of the program is strong
  4. E Squared is under the umbrella of Career Partners and its cross-disciplined board of directors.  This board has developed excellent rapport, trust and cooperation between educators and business people – a rare accomplishment in today’s environment.

Career Partners would never continue the E Squared program without strict adherence to point #1 and would be extremely hesitant to change point #2 by having paid staff.

With emphasis on educator feedback, continuous improvement practices and reliance on sound business principles, E Squared is a resilient program and a living example of how to build the very skills students need to learn. 

For more information visit www.ESquaredCulpeper.com.

 

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