Ohio Afterschool Network is unleashing student creativity, and fostering pandemic recovery, through entrepreneurship

A large group of students wearing masks and matching shirts stand in a line between two raised garden beds.
At RISE Afterschool, which is expanding entrepreneurial education with help from OAN and YEI, students are cultivating entrepreneurial skills as they create a garden business with raised beds. Photo: CBI Middletown, Inc.

Their ideas and inventions, captured in 30-90 second video clips, poured in from across the state. One student pitched an affordable water filtration system. Another proposed a helmet device to limit sports injuries. A third came up with a GPS app to combat sex trafficking. All told, 82 young Ohioans submitted problem-solving entries to the Ohio Afterschool Network’s Winter Pitch Challenge. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, their ideas aimed to promote health, address racism, marshal peer support, and bring more art and sports into students’ lives.

The challenge kicked off a year of entrepreneurial activities across Ohio.

In Northeast Ohio, Eastern Gateway Community College used a mini grant from OAN to infuse entrepreneurial education into a weeklong camp for Upward Bound students. The camp and the college’s collaboration with Youngstown Senior Corps of Retired Executives were so successful that they’re working to replicate it with schools in Brookfield, Ohio.

New Life CDC kicked off its entrepreneurial education program with a workshop on creativity.
Photo: Stacy Ward-Braxton

In Cleveland, Boys and Girls Hope honored Juneteenth with a celebration focused on entrepreneurship. With help from OAN and the Young Entrepreneur Institute at University School, the event featured a panel discussion with Ohio-based business owners for middle and high school students and culminated with a market of youth-made goods.

In Southeast Ohio, Hocking College hosted ExploreAg, a camp for high school students featuring hands-on learning about entrepreneurship and small business. OAN had teamed up with the Ohio Farm Bureau, Ohio State University and 4-H on the concept. It attracted high school students with an interest in science, technology, food and agriculture.

“I have always been interested in entrepreneurship, but now I really want to work in or own a business in agriculture,” one camper said. “I had no idea Hocking College existed and now I really think it will be a good option for me after I graduate.”

In Middletown, Community-Building Institute is working with OAN and YEI to integrate entrepreneurial education and experiences into their RISE Afterschool Program. RISE students have met with local entrepreneurs, learned to create and cultivate a community garden business, and pitched their own business concepts during CBI’s first-ever Leadership Academy Graduation and Pitch Challenge.

RISE Afterschool students toured Berns nursery business and bought plants and vegetables for their own community garden business.
Photo: CBI Middletown, Inc.

These are just a handful of the efforts OAN and its partners undertook this year that focused not only on creating entrepreneurial learning experiences for young people, but also on building an entrepreneurial ecosystem for out-of-school-time programs statewide. Like other afterschool networks around the country, OAN finds that these programs — with highly relevant experiences that fuel young people’s creativity and leadership — are among the best ways to help students navigate the pandemic and accelerate learning recovery.

“We find that kids are innately interested in entrepreneurship,” said Liz Nusken, an OAN consultant who is spearheading this work. “There are a lot of external factors, like AI, automation and the move to a gig economy that make this an important to time to focus on youth entrepreneurship education. But COVID also taught all of us — not just kids, but adults, too — that we need to think like entrepreneurs, looking for ways to solve problems and not being deterred.”

“The work that Liz does shows people how expansive and enriching afterschool is,” said Michele Ritchlin, executive director of OAN. “It expands pathways for young people, promotes creativity and shines a light on how robust Ohio’s afterschool programs are. Especially right now, it’s important we use all of the tools in our toolbox to reengage young people in learning.”

OAN is one of 17 networks that are part of the 50 State Afterschool Network supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation to receive an opportunity grant from Mott to create entrepreneurial experiences for young people in out-of-school-time settings. The Foundation also provides funding to YEI, VentureLab, Lemonade Day, Youth Entrepreneurs, Empowered and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, all of which are delivering expert technical assistance to afterschool networks and programs.

Touring local businesses, RISE Afterschool students met with John Ferrando, an acclaimed glass artist and business owner.
Photo: CBI Middletown, Inc.

In incubating Ohio’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, OAN is partnering with technical assistance providers like YEI and VentureLab to deliver free curricula, training, workshops and support to afterschool and summer programs and practitioners. The network is creating a roster of new relationships with businesses, chambers of commerce, youth-serving organizations, and colleges and universities to serve students in big cities and small towns statewide.

“By infusing entrepreneurship into afterschool, OAN is helping to ensure that more young people not only have the chance to reconnect to learning, but also to tackle the issues they care about most and prepare for the future of education and work,” said Mott Foundation Associate Program Officer Arielle Milton.

OAN’s and its partners’ efforts are paying off.

YWCA of Central Ohio recently won a corporate grant to incorporate entrepreneurial education into their afterschool programming at 19 sites serving 775 young people.

New Albany-Plain Local School District has added entrepreneurial education to its summer camp offerings and is dedicated to building the entrepreneurial mindsets of students and staff alike.

High school students in Ohio who develop entrepreneurial skills in afterschool have an opportunity to graduate with an OhioMeansJobs Readiness Seal, which enhances their diploma.

Afterschool students celebrate graduation day at RISE Leadership Academy, sharing what they learned about leadership and entrepreneurship.
Photo: CBI Middletown, Inc.

And the Ohio Department of Education awarded priority points in its 2022 application packet to 21st Century Community Learning Center Programs that include entrepreneurship.

OAN Winter Pitch Challenge winners and participants have broader pathways, too. First place winners in each grade category won a $500 Amazon gift card and a consultation with a successful Ohio entrepreneur, such as Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. All applicants had the chance to apply for a scholarship to participate in VentureLab Spark, a program that offers three months of mentoring and startup support to turn their business idea into a reality.

“Kids who come from families of means have access to camps and programs that support entrepreneurship, but I love bringing entrepreneurship education to afterschool and summer programs because it makes it available to more children, youth and teens,” said Nusken.

“This is a perfect example of how statewide afterschool networks and afterschool programs are forging futures for young people,” said Mott Senior Program Officer Gwynn Hughes, who manages the Foundation’s Advancing Afterschool portfolio of grants, which includes support of the 50 State Afterschool Network.