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This post was written by SWEDU community member Samson Peng

If you’ve participated in a Startup Weekend and stopped by this event thinking you know what to expect, you’re in for a surprise. The rooms and hallways at this event are filled with teenagers. In a main meeting room, a keyboard clacks rhythmically to the rotations of a Rubik’s Cube as two teens meet each other. A crowd of young aspiring students queued by towering glass doors. Hushed whispers mixed with excited chatter within the effervescent halls of New York University’s MAGNET in Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center.

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The Teens Track at Startup Weekend EDU brought together high school students from the boroughs of New York and even two entrepreneurial students from New Jersey: Nikita Krasnogorov and Emily Fuentes from the Academy for Independent Studies in the Hudson County Schools of Technology school district (both their teams Ducky and A Passionate Pursuit proceeded to take first and second place).

SWEDU Teens focused on engaging teens in the entire entrepreneurial process, from idea generation to product development, all within one short weekend – a challenge even for teams of trained and experienced professionals. As the event kicked off, each teen brought their unique educational and incredibly diverse cultural backgrounds to the games-inspired presentation room, united by the anticipation which filled the seats of the room.

Gabrielle Santa-Donato and Andy Hagerman of The Design Gym got things started with Friday night training on design thinking. Students were given the tools to dive deeper into their proposed ideas and identify the underlying problem they were trying to solve.  The problems that surfaced during these discussions were all derived from first-hand experiences ranging from racial segregation in the cafeteria to a mountain of frustration surrounding the infamous SATs.  By the end of the evening, most students walked away with a well-refined problem/solution pair and were ready to pitch bright and early the next morning.  On Saturday, many brave souls (at least half) took the stage and gave excellent pitches.  After quite a bit of discussion and voting, every student had found a team and was eager to get started.

The Saturday workday allowed each startup team to strategize, validate, prototype and tweak their products. Not a second was wasted as teens surveyed their facebook friends, designed their products and coded on the Chromebooks provided for them. After products were developed, professional mentors rotated around teams, giving them vital tips and answering their questions. One team consulted their mentor to explain programming bottlenecks they’d encountered. Another team filled jumbo dual-sided whiteboards (on both sides) with ideas and designs for their mentor to review. Yet another teen practiced presenting data to her mentor, who paused momentarily to remind the team to stay focused.

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On the final evening, teens had the opportunity to present their projects to their peers and a panel of entrepreneurs, government representatives, professors and leaders in education. Highlights amongst presentations included a live demo web application named Ducky, used to aggregate extracurricular activities for teenagers, a job sourcing website just for teens and a business which helps teens discover their passions – each idea carefully crafted to address the needs of a young generation which sees how technology could benefit them.

The weekend was an ambitious experiment: What happens when you bring together over 30 teens from diverse backgrounds, create an explorative environment, provide access to supportive mentors and freedom for less than 24 hours? Creative solutions to teen concerns, an extraordinary learning experience and businesses hilariously named after their favorite rubber duckies.

Between the hustle of time constraints, the hallways of MAGNET filled with laughter, conversation, and teens learning about the benefits (and sometimes challenges) of working in teams. SWEDU Teens is not a typical event – it is a movement to show our youth their potential and dare them to dream.


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John Baldo