On Obinno Coley’s first day as a student teacher at McCluer North, his supervisor had to leave when his wife went to the hospital to have a baby.
“He gave me a book and said: ‘you’re on your own,'” Coley told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh on Monday. “I worked with that book for the next three months and at the end of it I said ‘wherever I go, I will bring this with me.’”
That book was a guide for teaching entrepreneurship to students. Today, Coley brings startup and entrepreneurial culture into the classroom every day at Normandy High School, which has experienced its ups and downs over the past several years and is now awaiting provisional accreditation from that state, pending end-of-year testing results.
Coley is the high school’s entrepreneurship teacher, a program he created from the ground-up in the school district. He supervises an elective track that gets high schoolers into the idea of conceptualizing, testing and bringing forth business ideas into the world at a young age.
“He came in and hit the ground running,” said Normandy principal Derrick Mitchell, who called in during the show to thank Coley for his work.
The program, which students voluntarily opt into, has just finished its second year. The first year, about 120 students participated and this year, about 90 students are a part of the program.
That includes two of his students, Raheem Larry and Deimon McKinney, who are advancing to the national finals of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) competition for an idea they conceptualized under Coley's supervision.
Coley said the movement to teach entrepreneurship in schools has been growing and about nine high schools in the region have such programs. NFTE has a local chapter which administers a regional entrepreneurship competition, which Larry and McKinney placed second in.
Larry came up with their idea from a real-life experience of coming to school with both a backpack filled with school paraphernalia and another one filled with basketball equipment for class after school. He decided he wanted to prototype a backpack that would have compartments for both things, called The Backerpacker.
“I think the whole goal of the class is to teach kids to be creators not consumers,” Coley said. “For him to run into a real-life situation and to have the mindset and skills to create a product and business around that product, just from living everyday: that was my perfect assessment of this situation. I was like ‘wow, this class is really working.’”
In the best world, Coley’s students would take their prototype and turn it into a fully-fledged business they could run outside of school.
In the class, Coley teaches concepts about the economy, supply and demand, importing and exporting, prototyping, pitching and marketing. He also organizes class speakers/mentors and field trips to places like CIC, TechShop and T-Rex to inspire his students.
Everyone in Coley’s class produces some sort of business idea from real life and plans for it to become a reality. For example, one of his students wears a hearing aid. Her idea was to make something that would beautify hearing aids and sell it.
“In my day, when I graduated, all I had was a high school diploma,” Coley said. “Our goal is for kids to have college credit, some sort of internship or job training, and a high school diploma.”
Coley himself is a businessman. He majored in business management in college and eventually went on to start his own marketing business before turning to teaching to give back to younger people.
“The best thing I tell my kids is ‘you’re your own boss,’” Coley said. “That’s my hook line to them. When most kids get to that age, they get rebellious with their parents. But I tell them: no matter where you go, you always have to abide by rules. Even if you go to prison, even if you join a gang, even if you go to a company there’s rules there. The only way to beat this is to make your own rules. The only way to make your own rules is to be your own boss, to start your own business to abide by your own dress code, whatever it may be.”
Coley said he hopes more kids will buy into the program as it progresses in the coming years, hoping that 50 to 70 percent of kids will participate in the elective program.
In the meantime, though, even though the Normandy school year just ended, he’ll start up a summer “biz camp” in two weeks to help Larry and McKinney work on their Backerpacker prototype. Then he’ll start meeting with rising freshman who want to start the program in the fall.
“This year is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.