Monday, December 1, 2014
Posted by: Sarah Stewart
Miami resident Nakia Bowling wanted to raise a socially conscious child. Every year at Christmas, she had her daughter Zoe give a toy away so she would learn to appreciate the generous spirit of the season. When Zoe was six years old, she told her mom that instead of giving one toy away, she wanted to give lots of little dolls to girls who didn’t have any dolls.
With the help of her mother, Zoe created a nonprofit called Zoe’s Dolls, which collects and distributes dolls to poor children in Miami, as well as Lusaka, Zambia, and Haiti. Zoe's Dolls is gaining attention and is currently in talks with Toys ‘R Us as a partner. Zoe received help developing her nonprofit from the I.C.E. Initiative at Miami Country Day School, where she is currently a student. The I.C.E. Initiative, which stands for innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship, is a program that helps K3-12 students develop personal entrepreneurial projects. The school matched Zoe with a mentor who has expertise as an entrepreneur.
Jenny Knight is the Lower School Director who spearheaded the development of the I.C.E. Initiative. The concept was born from a number of events Knight organized at the school in 2012 to brainstorm with parents and alumni about ways to foster students’ creativity and ability to innovate. Knight invited speakers who were proven innovators and entrepreneurs. Over the course of three events with 80 attendees each, the speakers discussed their work and experiences, and then led smaller focus groups in which they continued to discuss possibilities. “I strongly believe in bringing all the constituents together around ideas about the future of education – parents, alumni, teachers, and administrators,” Knight said. “It creates community, educates parents about trends, and creates a collective conversation.”
Through this process, Knight dreamed about organizing inventor competitions for high school students and realized it could be a niche opportunity for the school – a program that would support students with ideas that they want to take to the next level. “My vision was to use parents, alumni, and faculty as the mentors for kids who have an idea, and I was thinking if you were a parent and your child had an idea, you would be happy to give back by helping another parent’s child. That was the vision,” Knight said.
Knight presented the idea to Miami Country Day School Head, Dr. John Davies, and it was approved. They knew the program would need a leader and quickly identified Karen Davis, a parent who had recently finished her master’s in education and also had a background in entrepreneurship and broadcasting. Davis was hired as Director of the I.C.E. Initiative, which was launched in 2013. She has more than three decades of experience in broadcasting and has been involved in a number of start-ups, including a series of e-books for children. She has a child at Miami Country Day School and served as a volunteer before becoming a full-time faculty member. She said the position allows her to combine the three things she’s most passionate about: broadcasting, entrepreneurship, and education.
To make it work, the school would also need to allocate appropriate space. The program found a home in the school’s Franco Center for Learning, which includes a broadcasting studio, a maker space, and a lab where students can develop their ideas.
The program is a conduit that connects students with a growing network of parents, alumni, faculty, and community members who act as mentors and help students make their dreams reality. Knight contacted people who had been involved in the brainstorming sessions to create a list of possible mentors. Parent Leigh Rothschild agreed to serve on the advisory board for the program and also as a mentor to participating students. Rothschild has been an inventor since he was a teenager and holds more than 60 different patents ranging from computer servers to 3D displays to QR codes. He was particularly excited that the program would be made available to lower school students. “I think the younger we can get kids involved in being imaginative and being entrepreneurs, the sooner we get kids to realize that anything is possible,” said Rothschild. “I’m thrilled to take someone as young as 6 or 7 and inspire them in that direction.”
Rothschild says, “The most powerful force in the universe is your mind, and with the many issues in our world– poverty, climate change, disease, war – we need to be encouraging our children to think creatively and dream big,” he said. “Also, if it’s not absurd, don’t be thinking about it. I’ve been inventing since I was 17 and it starts with the imagination. If you have a crazy idea, maybe it’s not so crazy. Nuclear power was a crazy idea. The internet was a crazy idea. The phone was a crazy idea. We just landed a spaceship on a comet traveling 310 million miles away from Earth, and we did it because of ideas people once thought were crazy.”
The I.C.E. Initiative process starts with students completing an online questionnaire where they describe and streamline their plans. Questions include: “If you had a dream or a goal, what would that be?” and “Can you describe your plan for that dream in a paragraph?” The answers to these questions help Davis gauge the student’s interest level, planning skills, and ability to think about the fundamentals of starting a business. Next, the student presents a full proposal and is interviewed by Davis. Some qualifications for acceptance are the student’s capacity for longevity as well as the level of parental support, since much of the work will be done after school hours. Once admitted to the program, the student is paired with a mentor. The student’s project is routinely reviewed by the mentor to ensure it stays on track.
The school has already had successful projects from a variety of age groups. One upper school student organized a fundraiser that raised more than $5,000 to send sports equipment to children in a poor village in Africa. Another student suggested a toilet seat that lights up at night. A group of lower school students raised more than $600 by selling elaborate rubber bracelets at the school’s breast cancer fundraiser.
In another project, two seniors wanted to organize a business challenge, so Davis organized “The Spartan Cup Business Challenge.” Rothschild is one of the judges at the event as well as Ben Wirz from the Knight Foundation, a nonprofit that supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities, and foster the arts. The school is also discussing a feeder program with the Knight Foundation to develop entrepreneurs and keep them in Miami.
The I.C.E. Initiative has been successful in teaching students unique skills and lessons that will help them succeed in life. Students are learning what it takes to build a business. They are learning what it means to go from dream to reality. They are benefiting from mentors and the expertise of community members. They are learning from real world experiences and exploring their passions. They are also learning to be leaders and advocates for social change. In each project they see how they can make a difference in the world.
“Our goal is to give them experiences that increase their independence,” said Knight. “I think that when you value each child’s capacity to be a leader, there is truly no limit to what they can do. We really develop leadership and give them the opportunity, but more so, we ask them how they want to be involved and what they want to do.”
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