April 15, 2021

An Entrepreneurial Mindset Blossoms Among Cleveland-Area Students

By: Sarah Williamson



When homeowners look for outdoor improvements in Gates Mills, Ohio, they might choose Cutting Edge Landscaping, a company run by student entrepreneurs. 

A vendor looking for a product video or an athlete who needs a recruiting film might turn to Dunlevy Productions, a company founded by another high schooler. 

Or a nonprofit like the Cleveland Food Bank or Special Olympics might receive a monetary donation from a student donating proceeds from their business.

The concentration of young people with an entrepreneurial mindset in this Cleveland suburb is no coincidence. These students and dozens of others have taken the Management and Entrepreneurship course at Gilmour Academy, which uses the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program’s curriculum, taught by social studies instructor James Polak. 

“When I describe the course for potential students and parents, I tell them it isn’t about starting a business,” Polak said. “That’s one potential outcome, but the course is about establishing an entrepreneurial mindset in every student that’s going to help them pursue their goals. That’s what makes the Ice House program so important to us. It aligns with what we want to accomplish.”

Indeed, Gilmour Academy—an independent Catholic coed school—fosters an entrepreneurial mindset for its students. This mindset helps all Gilmour students understand “that profit is not the only criterion for creating a successful enterprise; entrepreneurism is about following one’s passion and making a difference in the lives of others.” according to the school’s website.

Shifting students from dependent to interested to engaged

Within formal learning structures, teachers and administrators often determine what students should find useful and how they should follow the rules. Over the years, students develop an “employee mindset” and start to believe that someone else will always be there to tell them what is useful.

When Polak took over the entrepreneurship course at Gilmour four years ago, he knew the school wanted something different for its students. He was disappointed that the focus of most entrepreneurship curricula was on planning and presentations instead of problem-solving. A Gilmour parent, Mike Baird, suggested he look into the Ice House program. “It took all of 2 or 3 minutes into the presentation until I knew this is where we wanted to go,” Polak said. 

Baird introduced Polak to the Ice House program and graciously provided funding for Polak to attend facilitator training. He also funded Gilmour’s initial use of the curriculum. “Mr. Baird’s ongoing guidance and support have been instrumental in the development of our entrepreneurship program,” Polak said. For additional funding, Polak has also received grants from both the Veale Youth Entrepreneurship Forum and the Burton D. Morgan Foundation. “We’ve been really blessed to have so many great partners who help us continue to enhance our program,” Polak said. “I’m also really fortunate that our school’s leadership sees the value in what we are building and has supported me in implementing these new courses.”

The Ice House curriculum redefines entrepreneurship in a way that everyone can embrace; the self-directed pursuit of opportunities to create value for others. By creating value for others, we empower ourselves.

The results of incorporating the Ice House program at Gilmour Academy were immediate. In terms of the students’ engagement level and how they talked about entrepreneurship. “There was an energy to the class – so much so that the following school year, we doubled our program in size from two sections to four sections, and there was still a waiting list,” Polak said. 

Due to this success, Gilmour added a secondary course called Launchpad. This class is for students interested in a hands-on approach to starting or expanding their own business or nonprofit. Students engage in a project that demonstrates effective problem-solving and depth of inquiry and provides value to the community. 

“We’ve had a handful of students each semester who have started their own businesses,” Polak said. “I still have a group doing that now, even in COVID times. These are the kids who are actually out there doing it. They have completely taken charge of their education, and it’s amazing.” 

Side hustles that build career options

The students behind Cutting Edge Landscaping were already doing yard work before they took Management and Entrepreneurship or Launchpad. But Polak encouraged them to apply each lesson to their company. Eventually, they felt ready to pitch their business in a competition at Case Western Reserve. “. “Even though they weren’t the most polished speakers—because our program isn’t about presenting—it was evident that they have a real business and did all the work to build it. They weren’t just checking boxes.”

Thanks to the competition, the student entrepreneurs received grant money to upgrade their equipment, allowing them to expand their business. They currently serve more than 100 clients and employ 15 to 20 fellow students. 

“Our parents love the Ice House program,” Polak said. “They see the value. They’re not seeing their kids mowing lawns; they’re seeing their kids running a business, hiring people, managing the books, managing clients, managing deadlines.” 

Shifting the educational perspective

As an educator, Polak finds the connection between the course content and the real world invaluable. “When we’re in our Launchpad courses, it feels like we’re in a work co-op,” he says. “I’m not up in the front of the room giving them content. They don’t have time to explain to me everything they’re doing. I can see the results. It would slow them down for me to insist on being a content expert for them. My role is to provide a level of accountability if needed, but more to continue to encourage them and serve as an on-demand consultant.”

“Of course, I need to realize that there will be times when they need me to just shut up and get out of the way,” Polak added with a laugh. “As a teacher, it’s different to give up that much control and let them run without you at times.” 

For students, the shift to self-directed learning and value creation will have a lifelong impact. When asked for his most significant takeaway, one current Gilmour senior had this to say: “A lot of people are afraid to start stuff because they feel like they’re not ready, but this course showed that it’s a long journey. There will be things that don’t go your way—it’s all about how you respond.”

These are wise words to take out into the world beyond high school graduation.