Young Sharks

Young Sharks: Creating the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

In April, we blogged about how project-based learning (PBL) helps youth make real-world connections. PBL was especially fresh in our minds at the time, because we were mid-way through piloting Dignity of Children’s Young Sharks curriculum in NYC.


The Young Sharks is a project-based learning entrepreneurship experience. This program, which ran from February to May 2019 and was sponsored by the New York City Department of Youth & Community Development (DYCD), challenged 25 middle and high school youth to become entrepreneurs in 10 short weeks.


The Young Sharks curriculum utilized PBLWorksGold Standard PBL pedagogy to introduce an entrepreneurial mindset, make real-world connections, and teach children as young as 12 how to turn an idea into a business.

Here’s how we did it and what happened.

“Nobody’s telling you that you can’t start a business because you’re 12. This is just the beginning for everybody in this Young Sharks project. You now have the opportunity to take the next step, and the next, and the next. Keep your idea alive by taking small steps.”– Sonia Toledo, Founder of Dignity of Children

Young Sharks 

What is Young Sharks?


The Young Sharks curriculum introduced the entrepreneurial mindset to youth using, as an example, local hero and successful entrepreneur Jessica O. Matthews, Founder and CEO of Uncharted Play.


The curriculum then asked youth to brainstorm world issues and, based on the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, answer the question:


“What is the problem I want to solve or impact?”


Next, through a process of sustained inquiry, participants were challenged to find and distill research on their chosen topic. They used this research to create a public service announcement (PSA) to raise awareness about their cause or social issue. The aspiring entrepreneurs then devised methods of collecting data using interviews, surveys, and analysis.


To connect their chosen issues with the curriculum’s subject matter – entrepreneurship – participants were asked to instill their approach to addressing social issues with a business sensibility. They identified experts and companies who support their cause.  The intention was to get an expert opinion on whether or not they were on the right track to meet the need of their problem statement. To achieve their purpose, Young Sharks teams researched agencies or institutions who were already working to address the issue, and the populations who would be served by their product.


Starting with these inquiry steps, they reached out to their competition. From there, they worked to identify new solutions and opportunities for impact.


Young Sharks


Inspiring an Entrepreneurial Mindset in Youth


As a part of the Young Sharks curriculum, participants built a prototype for their product. They identified fundraising sources and financial goals and were challenged to devise a business plan with a starting budget of $1,250. Young Sharks created a plan to take their business to the next level with the winning prize of $1,250.


Throughout the 10-week program, and especially during the creation of their product prototypes, youth were encouraged to identify challenges they encountered. They were asked not only what the challenges were and how to solve them, but what they could learn from the challenges, and what extended learnings they could gather from the solutions.


To create an impact story that they could share with their program facilitator, one another, and the community at large, the Young Sharks assembled artifacts, photographs, and documents to help them tell the story of why their chosen issue was important to them, how they accomplished their prototype, and how they planned to launch and sustain their business.


During this stage, participants were able to share reactions and insights with one another and implement feedback they received from their peers and facilitator.


Young Sharks


The Young Shark Tank Competition


At the end of the 10-week curriculum, the Young Shark teams competed for a prize: a $1,250 investment in their business. In a Shark Tank-style competition held at the New York Youth Summit in May, they presented their ideas, impact stories, and business plans to a panel of community leaders and successful entrepreneurs. Among the judges were Riley Jones, CEO of Bloc, and Darryl Rattray, Associate Commissioner of Community Centers and Strategic Partnerships for the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development and Daniel Quintero, Executive Director of Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club.


In their presentations, youth tackled social issues such as homelessness, children’s health, civic engagement, and food waste. Competition finalists included projects such as Light House, a mobile device that uses geotargeting to connect homeless populations to food, shelter, clothing and medical services; H.E.A.D.S Up!, a curriculum to develop confidence and resilience in youth victimized by emotional abuse; Showers of Chances, a mobile shower and hygiene stall for homeless populations; and the Power Up Blender, a self-cleaning smoothie machine designed to reduce food waste in schools.


In addition to their prototypes, participants presented the origins of their ideas, their research, their goals for their businesses, and why the missions they chose were personal and important to them.


Young Sharks


And the Winner is… Everybody


Project-based learning is more than a method or pedagogy. It is a way to prepare youth to face challenges and to be creative, resourceful, and successful through the development of life skills.


Our mission at Dignity of Children is to equip educators with the tools they need to help every young person find their light so that they can shine brightly and live meaningful lives. Our project-based learning curricula on entrepreneurship, health and wellness, financial literacy, and climate change are designed to engage the active citizen and creative thinker in each and every young person.


Find out more about our Project Based Learning programs.






Mathewson, Tara García. “Project-based learning boosts student engagement, understanding,” The Hechinger Report. May 8, 2019.


“Project-Based Learning: Student Choice, Engagement, and Authenticity.” Education Week. May 16, 2019.