Students learning that entrepreneurship is about more than business

Junior Achievement Ireland is one programme going into schools to teach life skills

You have to admire the optimism of children who set up shop on the street outside their house to sell a ragged assortment of “pre-loved” toys, books and games.

Knowing how most family homes have a ton of exactly that sort of stuff of their own already, it’s hard to believe they ever get many customers. But that’s probably a lesson in itself – how to cope with disappointment.

Our understanding of entrepreneurship in this country is quite narrow, says Helen Raftery, the chief executive of Junior Achievement Ireland (JAI), which aims to create a culture of enterprise within the education system. Entrepreneurship education is not about creating "mini capitalists", she says but rather "activities that help students prepare themselves for their post-school future".

The organisation matches up between 500 and 600 primary and secondary schools around the country with volunteer business mentors. They go into the schools to run any one of 16 different programmes for students aged six to 16.


Operating in Ireland since 1996, the now global Junior Achievement organisation started in the US 100 years ago. It was an educational movement to address the issue of “culchies getting fleeced by the townies”, says Raftery.

At that time in the US, young people from an agrarian background were going into commercial enterprises, unable to value their own labour, she says. “If you didn’t understand what your own set of skills was bringing to an organisation, you didn’t understand how to make yourself more of a contributor.”

That’s pretty much what JAI is about today. It aims to “give students the space to see what their future might look like and how their own passions and skills might be channelled in a certain way”, says Raftery,

It’s accepted that what children need for the future are “transversal” skills, including critical and innovative thinking, ability to work in teams, to be self-motivated and information literate.

There is such a squeeze on the curriculum, if schools think of entrepreneur education simply as “start your own company” , they won’t necessarily find room for it, says Raftery. That’s why JAI wants to make sure educators and parents see it as something broader, a programme to help students think: “I have value, I have skills, I have a passion, I can be confident, I can put my point of view forward, I can work well in a team, I can negotiate, I can listen to others, I can take on board their ideas – and between all of us we can make something better happen”.

Teachers and parents need to raise lifelong learners and agile thinkers for a world where millions of traditional jobs are disappearing and ones that we can’t yet even imagine are taking their place.

The business volunteers who go into schools have students’ attention simply because they’re somebody new, even if their message is the same as the teacher’s, she says. “By not being their teacher and not part of the examinable curriculum, you are already on to a winner.”

The fresh voice and contact with the world of work that these mentors offer is particularly valuable in Deis schools in disadvantaged communities. Pupils at Our Lady Immaculate Senior National School in Darndale, Dublin, don’t always have the chance to engage with people from a business or even a work background, says the school’s principal, Derry Amphlett. Most mentors also invite the class to their workplace and “the kids really love that”.

There is “real learning” in these entrepreneurship programmes, he stresses. “It is not just a bit of fun and craic for 40 minutes a week. It really enhances what the teacher is doing curriculum-wise and it’s always great for kids to have a different voice. That is one thing our kids wouldn’t get an awful lot – that somebody is giving their time and effort to come in and to commit to them and to provide something very interesting and valuable to them.”

His sentiments are echoed by Mary O’Sullivan, a guidance counsellor at Thomond Community College, on the north side of Limerick city. She says it’s particularly important that children in Deis schools are given the chance to meet employers and employees, and to visit colleges. “It breaks down those psychological barriers.”

Positivity and self-confidence can come more naturally, she suggests, to children raised in affluent homes.

Staying in school

One of the JAI programmes she singles out is the one done with second-year students on the economics of staying in school.

“Students are seeing the link between what people earn and the education they have. Already they are getting the idea that the longer you stay in school, the more choices you will have, the more opportunities you will have to travel, the more careers you can choose from and, generally, higher the salary – that’s a motivation in itself.”

Dylan Byrne (16), a fifth-year student at Drimnagh Castle Secondary School in Dublin, took part in a Skills for Life programme during Transition Year, when JAI volunteers introduced the class to project management.

He then led a team of about 10 classmates in organising an indoor football tournament for first-year students at school, with proceeds going to St John’s Ward in Crumlin children’s hospital.

“I learned a lot of team management skills,” says Dylan. “It’s not as easy as it sounds. A lot more work went into it than we thought.”

Kerry-based entrepreneur Jerry Kennelly believes children are poorly served by the school education system

They needed to assign roles, devise how the tournament should be run, seek permission from the principal and deputy principal and then communicate with students and teachers about it. Putting project management skills into practice helped to ensure the event ran smoothly on the day, he adds.

To mark global Junior Achievement’s centenary year, JAI has introduced an awards scheme aimed at recognising and rewarding schools who give pupils these kinds of entrepreneurial opportunities.

“It is far easier for the schools to keep the doors shut,” says Raftery. “We want to acknowledge the time and effort taken by teachers to organise and partner with Junior Achievement.”

Participants will be invited to a summit in October to listen to guest speakers and meet other principals and teachers who have enlisted their schools in such programmes. An overall winner will represent Ireland at the European Entrepreneurial School Awards in Helsinki in November.

The Minister for Education and Skills, Joe McHugh, who launched the awards, talked of the need to equip young people with the “confidence, adaptability and attitude required” for an unpredictable future.

Kerry-based entrepreneur Jerry Kennelly believes children are poorly served by the school education system when it comes to making informed career choices and too often "drift aimlessly" in education. That's why he co-founded the Junior Entrepreneur Programme (JEP) in 2010, targeting fifth- and sixth-class pupils in primary schools.

These 11- and 12-year-olds will very shortly be making decisions on subject choices for secondary school, he points out, and the 12-week JEP programme “gives them a chance to be part of the real economy and explore their potential”, he says.

More than 70,000 children have participated in the programme, which aims to give a greater understanding of “the real world”. Each child is encouraged to come up with an idea for a business and these are discussed and whittled down to four or five, which are then presented to a panel of “dragons” from local businesses.

Once the best idea is chosen, children invest a small amount of money in it and the whole class collaborates to bring it to fruition and, hopefully, create a return on their investment. Past products have included board games and jars of honey.

“It’s just like walking into a start-up business – the atmosphere is electric and everybody is so focused,” says Kennelly. “These kids are putting in their own money and they are very conscious of it. Inevitably something goes wrong that they have to recover from; there are parallels with the crazy world of start-ups,” he laughs.

While parents are trying to do their best for their children, Kennelly thinks that “a lot of the problem in later education is that parents are making decisions for children”. These decisions “are so off the mark” because they are for the parents’ time rather than for the future their children will be living in.

“I believe there is a really serious problem about children having access to the information that is required to select the right courses and perhaps do some psychometrics before taking courses. The fall-off in some very important technological courses is very high,” he points out.

It saddens him to see college graduates stuck in low-paying jobs due to poor education choices. Meanwhile, his company, Tweak, is recruiting people from all over the world to come to Ireland for some of the best jobs.

“It’s insane,” he says. “There are really exciting things happening in our economy and young people deserve a chance to be part of it. But our education system is letting the country down and is letting the children down.”

The failure to create a culture of resilience among young people percolates into the workplace, says Colman Noctor, a child and adolescent psychotherapist at St Patrick's Mental Health Services. The formula for happiness, he suggests, is expectation minus reality – and the problem lies with the expectation part of the equation.

When young people have the idea that a career is all “bean bags and free food”, they can struggle in the workplace when they find that in fact it’s really hard work. He doesn’t buy into the belief that millennials lack resilience because they have had it too easy. Rather, “they have been sold a pup in some respects” and this is what needs to be addressed.

“From a parenting point of view, the most important thing you can teach a child is the difference between gratification and fulfilment,” says Noctor, author of Cop On: What it is and why your child needs it to survive and thrive in today’s world. We live in a culture of gratification – everything is instant. Whereas the most meaningful things in life don’t happen like that.

“Children are not valuing fulfilment because it is not in the lexicon of terms, it is much more about [the idea of] ‘study very hard, get the exam result, bang that’s the result of that, next challenge’.

“They think much more in segments and silos rather than process and it’s really hard to sell process because it involves hard work, waiting, dealing with adversity and disappointment.

“In your everyday parenting skills, you should be reaffirming the value and meaning of fulfilment rather than gratification,” he adds. That will set them up to manage expectation and to take “a warts-and-all view of things”.

So then if nobody stops at your children’s street stall, they’ll take it all in their stride.

Learning from mock interviews  

“I think she ain’t getting the job.” That’s 11-year-old Tadgh’s immediate verdict on the mock interview he has just seen. “She doesn’t like to talk to people and she has no clue.”

He's right. The "candidate", Junior Achievement volunteer Ciara Egan from Avanade, an IT consultancy, hasn't a hope. Not that the lead interviewer, her colleague Colin O'Brien, has performed any better.

The two volunteers have just role-played, in O’Brien’s words, “the extreme bad interview” for 22 fifth-class pupils at Scoil Treasa Naofa off Donore Avenue in Dublin 8. It’s the fourth of a five-week “Our World” programme they have come in to lead, while class teacher Edwin Kelly can take a step back and just observe for a change.

After O’Brien has led a whole-class appraisal of what went wrong on both sides of the table at the interview, he looks for volunteers to repeat the exercise.

Co-interviewer and fifth-class pupil Zakariya has certainly taken on board the lesson about the importance of body language and he is all eye contact and leaning forward with great interest as he and Aisha quiz the aforementioned Tadgh on his suitability for the job.

This candidate’s keenness to ask questions is seen as a positive, until he gets to “how much will I be paid?” That sort of bluntness is not advisable, the children are told in the post-mortem.

Body language comes under scrutiny in the third mock interview too, when interviewee Alex is indignant after classmates suggest he didn’t seem bothered about getting the job. “I was interested,” he insists, sparking a conversation about why they thought otherwise.

O’Brien is a past pupil of this school, as was his father in the 1930s, which is a reason he was particularly keen to come back and do the JA programme here. He thinks the fact that he used to sit in the same classroom resonates with the children.

“The first thing I showed them was my Confirmation picture and my Communion picture when I was in my shorts and they got a great laugh out of it.”

It’s this sort of connection that Junior Achievement chief executive Helen Raftery describes as “the magic” that happens between volunteers and students during each mapped-out lesson. For instance, O’Brien is asked about a job interview he has done and he recalls how he nervously made a mess of his first one for a bank job. After he heard nothing for two weeks, he rang looking for feedback and chatted, in a much more relaxed fashion, with a person in human resources. It was bothering to make that phonecall which secured him the job.

At the end of the session, Kenzie (11), who wants to be a professional footballer or work for Microsoft, sums up for The Irish Times what he learned today about interviews: "I would dress well, be polite and I wouldn't ask about money."