Who’s Learning from Whom?

I start each class the same, “Believe it or not, I’m going to learn more from you than you do from me.” This being my 3rd year teaching the Summer Business Institute at Portland State University, I saw no reason to change my intro. Especially since the previous two years have revealed my prediction to be undeniably true. Whether it’s their naivety, their curiosity, or just their unwavering faith, it never ceases to amaze me how much I learn from their constant inquiry, “Why not?”

PSU’s Summer Business Institute provides high school students an introduction to the Business School and a brief glance at college life during a 4-day, 3-night on-campus visit. Participants are either entering their Junior or Senior year of high school – a few just graduated. I’m with them every day from 9AM to Noon. Following lunch, they visit local companies to learn how business school practices are put into practical application in the real world. Past company visits include: Nike, Franz, Columbia Sportswear, Costco, Adidas, Fred Meyer and Wieden and Kennedy to name just a few.

My favorite part of the class, and where I tend to learn the most from them, is the challenge I give them within the first few minutes of class. They are to design, in groups, a business that must:

  1. Solve a societal need – provide a solution to what they believe to be a critical social issue.
  2. Make money!


While I am a big believer in the need for non-profit business structures, I challenge these students to solve a societal need by creating a for-profit business. Why? Because I’m a Michael Porter groupie and I completely buy into the concept of Creating Shared Value and the need, and the opportunity, for business to solve societal ills. This shouldn’t surprise anyone reading this if you are familiar with KO’s client base.

The perceived societal issues and the solutions they come up with to solve them amaze me. And, they rarely make it up on the spot. These brilliant young minds have been thinking about these issues for some time. In fact, what astonishes me the most is when I ask them what others think of their idea/business concept and they say, “I don’t know, no one’s ever asked me.” Really? Digression warning:

We spend way too much time in our education system lecturing and way too little time facilitating learning.

I love listening to their theories of what’s troubling our society and how they would solve those troubles through the establishment of job-creating, community enhancing, tax-paying businesses. Companies that bring water to water-starved locations around the globe, grow and distribute food in food deserts, and numerous business models that surround the concepts of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle: fashion apps that help you piece together new outfits from the clothes you already have; apps that allow you to create new clothes from your old clothes; and concept after concept and app after app that addresses and redistributes the 40% of food wasted every year in the U.S.

On the final day, they have to present their business concept to a group of investors (business and academic community members) who prod and probe at their ideas. It’s our version of Shark Tank. And the students love it! What never ceases to amaze me, and the investors, is the way in which they sell us on the “why” of their business concept. It’s in the second day our time together when I get to teach them Simon Sinek’s theory of, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” And these students excel at both understanding and utilizing this theory. Here’s an example from a group in Year #1:

Day #1 (Pre-Simon Sinek):

“We’ve developed a business concept and tools that allow us to clean and filter pollution from the air while at the same time generating wind power that sends clean electricity back down the grid.”

Impressive to say the least. But, listen to their pitch on Day #2.

Day #2 (Post-why, not how):

“Imagine never seeing the stars? Imagine, being our age, and in your lifetime, you’ve never seen the stars. Unfathomable, if you’re a teenager from Portland, Oregon . . . but a reality if you’re teenager in Beijing, China. Our technology will allow people, just like us, in Beijing, to see the stars for the first time.”

It never ceases to amaze me at how quickly these young minds grasp one of the most important aspects of marketing positioning that, often, can take us months to develop in the real world. They truly inspire me and teach me.

I wish I had more time in this blog piece to tell more amazing stories of these equally amazing students. Instead, I’ll end with this challenge to you. These young women and men are our future and they are in desperate need of your time, knowledge and mentorship. You have so much to teach them, and they have so much to teach you. Fortunately, there are many opportunities for you to get involved with them. If you need some ideas, write me, I would love to help.

“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

– Franklin Roosevelt