Innovation

When I started DonorsChoose.org in my Bronx classroom in 2000, I was a teacher by day, aspiring entrepreneur by night.

Teachers today are better equipped to instill the entrepreneurial spirit in their students. Here are five lessons in entrepreneurship as told through the projects teachers have posted on DonorsChoose.org, along with some of my own discoveries:

First, listen.

Creating from Needs and Wants for Mrs. Elliott’s class in Culver City, CA

Mrs. Elliott requested books on famous inventors to help her students generate ideas for their own products. To start, students interviewed their classmates to identify a problem:

The students will begin by interviewing other students in the school regarding their top wants and needs and compare them to wants and needs in other countries. Next, they will create or invent a product based on student need, demand, or their own personal expertise just as an entrepreneur would.

DonorsChoose.org was inspired by the conversations I had with fellow teachers in the lunch room. We dreamed of offering our students the same books, microscopes, and field trips that we had access to back when we kids in school. We spent a lot of our own money on school supplies, and I realized that people might want to support teachers like us if there was a place where they could see where their money was going.

Start early.

Dollars and Sense for Mrs. Freeman’s class in Gaston, IN

Mrs. Freeman is teaching economics to her third graders by simulating real life financial experiences:

The students will be learning about economics by working at a classroom job, earning classroom money, and running a business. Students will learn how to make choices and decisions as consumers and producers.

At the end of her project, students get to spend their hard-earned “money” on a ticket to a class movie and other treats.

It’s never too early to start learning the principles of business or a particular industry, especially for young entrepreneurs. My students learned those lessons with me as we figured out everything together, like how to drive donations to the site and how to save on postage rates by sorting the mail ourselves.

Learn from someone else’s mistakes and successes.

Future Entrepreneurs Learn from Famous Entrepreneurs by Mr. Mayfield’s class in Blue Springs, MO

Mr. Mayfield found inspiration in the book Start Something That Matters by TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie, and wants his students to do the same:

My goal is to have my entrepreneurship students read this book and use the website associated with the book to learn many important business and personal lessons that should carry on with them once they graduate high school. I would love for at least one of my students to finish my class and come back to talk with future students about how rewarding it is to start a business that truly matters to them and their community.

One of my biggest realizations from starting DonorsChoose.org is the importance of selecting a name that’s “sticky” – easy to recall, rolls off the tongue, pleasing to the ear. I’ve learned that, unfortunately, “DonorsChoose.org” is not any of those things. While the best lean startups launch with a minimum viable product, the name is the one thing on which you can’t iterate, especially if you start to attract attention from media and investors.

Seize every opportunity to learn and sell.

Are You Really Sure Starbucks Got Started Just Like This? by Mr. Crompton’s class in North Charleston, SC

It’s not enough for Mr. Crompton’s culinary arts students to know how to cook. He sees an opportunity for them to sell what they’ve made to learn a new set of skills:

We will prepare, deliver, and sell things to the staff…With the sales three days a week, we will replace the sold items, and save the extra dues for our students to be members in a national student organization called Family, Careers, and Community Leaders of America…This entrepreneurial experience will help them develop a service concept, expand knowledge of how to greet customers, sell to them, be a breakfast cook, cashier, and server.

Mistakes are one of our biggest opportunities at DonorsChoose.org. In the rare instance that a teacher doesn’t send the handwritten thank you notes we’ve promised donors, we send that donor a DonorsChoose.org gift card as an apology and encourage them to support a new project. Those donors are so surprised, they often open their own wallets and add additional dollars when they redeem their card.

Anyone can be an entrepreneur.

The Drew School Garden Expansion by Mr. Craig’s class in Detroit, MI

Mr. Craig recognizes that his students, all of whom have a mental or physical impairment, can have a future in entrepreneurship with the right training. His classroom is the school garden and a local farmers market:

The objectives of our garden program center around the development of a comprehensive hands-on program to allow for each student to gain functional independence and/or job readiness skills in the production, consumption and sales of food and food-related products. This we will accomplish by the management of a school garden program that gives entrepreneurial and social experiences at local farmers markets, food banks and neighborhood soup kitchens.

One way we encourage our staff to think like an owner is through our New Ideas email distribution list. Anyone from anywhere in the organization can share an idea to improve the donor or teacher experience on our site, and other team members can help develop the idea. Every idea gets the attention of our senior leaders, and some of the best ideas have turned into multi-million dollar fundraising tools.

What lessons have you learned on your journey as an entrepreneur?

Charles Best

About the Author


Charles Best


Charles Best leads DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit organization which provides a simple way to address educational inequity. At DonorsChoose.org, public school teachers create classroom project requests and donors can pick the projects they want to support. Charles launched the organization twelve years ago out of a Bronx public high school where he taught history. DonorsChoose.org is one of Oprah Winfrey's "ultimate favorite things" and was named by Fast Company as one of the "50 Most Innovative Companies in the World," the first time a charity has received this recognition. For three years, Fortune Magazine has named Charles to its "40 under 40 hottest rising stars in business."