An entrepreneurial mindset is supported across all grade levels at this independent school for ages 18 months to grade 12 in suburban Cleveland. Through both academic and extracurricular programs, Gilmour Academy students learn 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.”
Many high school students who are self-motivated to pursue small businesses, career education, and nonprofit endeavors do so without a roadmap. While entrepreneurship courses are plentiful, they are often tailored to older age groups and focus on skills such as business planning and presenting with an end goal of maximizing profit.
When Gilmour Academy decided to include an entrepreneurship course within the social studies department in its Upper School, the administration wanted to encourage students to become lifelong learners and develop the knowledge and skills to be truly impactful in their communities.
The Ice House Entrepreneurship Program’s curriculum for grades 9 through 12 aligned seamlessly with the mindset Gilmour wanted its students to develop, said James Polak, the social studies instructor who took over the school’s entrepreneurship course four years ago.
“When I describe the Management and Entrepreneurship course for potential students and parents, I tell them it isn’t about starting a business,” Mr. Polak said. “That’s one potential outcome, but the course is about developing an entrepreneurial mindset that’s going to help every student pursue their goals. That’s what makes the Ice House program so much more important to us and what we want to accomplish.”
Three years ago, Gilmour Academy added Launchpad, a follow-up course in which students work independently with an instructor to design and operate their own business. Another course, Venture, gives students credit for experiential learning with local businesses.
During the first year in which Gilmour offered the Ice House curriculum, Mr. Polak said, “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.”
After students complete Management and Entrepreneurship, many are primed to start their own businesses even before they enroll in the Launchpad course. Leo Dunlevy ’22 is one of them. He started Dunlevy Productions to make product videos and recruiting films for sports during his sophomore year and enrolled in Launchpad as a junior to further hone his business. “We were able to break even within three or four months of opening,” he said. “I’ve been able to get a constant stream of clients.”
The teenage proprietors of Cutting Edge Landscaping had already started their business when they enrolled in Management and Entrepreneurship. “I loved the course,” said co-founder Matthew Benisek ’21. “The Ice House course was really good for taking what we learned and putting it into action.” Cutting Edge currently employs 15 to 20 students, cares for 55 lawns, and has a total clientele of more than 100. A successful presentation at a pitch competition at Case Western Reserve in late 2020 netted the company enough money to upgrade its equipment and expand.
Another co-founder, Michael Snelling ’21, credits the course with helping them make Cutting Edge an official business with four shareholders – all of them fellow students. “It was definitely my favorite class at Gilmour,” he said. “Both the curriculum and Mr. Polak teaching it were absolutely phenomenal. I loved every second of it.”
Mr. Polak believes the Ice House curriculum shifts students from being dependent on their instructors to becoming interested in the topic and then deeply engaged in the hands-on work. By the time students sign up for Launchpad and Venture, they have specific objectives for their self-directed learning experiences.
For Lily Maharg ‘21, the objective is to become a real estate agent. Through the Venture course, she interned with a local real estate company, which led to an offer of paid employment before and during college. She’ll soon be taking online real estate courses – and earning high school credits through Launchpad. “I will be a licensed real estate agent in Ohio by the time I get my diploma,” she said.
Fellow senior Mackenzie Palinski’s passion took her in a different direction. After completing Management and Entrepreneurship as a junior, she felt inspired by the Ice House call to find a problem and then create a solution. For Launchpad in her senior year, she set up a bracelet-making business and donated the proceeds to the Cleveland Food Bank and to a local Special Olympics team.
“It really gives you a greater view of the world around you and what people are doing beyond the classroom,” she reflected. “Maybe you’re not the best student or the most talented, but you can find something you’re passionate about – even something small – and make it a business.”
It’s real-world successes like these that let Mr. Polak know the program is on the right track. But even if students’ early efforts are not successful, their entrepreneurial mindset will give them the resilience to persevere.
“A lot of people are afraid to start stuff because they feel like they’re not ready,” Matthew Benisek said, “but the Ice House course showed that it’s a long journey, and there will be things that don’t go your way – it’s all about how you respond.”