In 1999, four high school students walked into Suzanne McKechnie Klahr's office and told her that they were done with school and wanted to start a business. They said they had heard that she was "the business lady" who could help them. Earlier that year, Klahr graduated from Stanford Law School and was awarded a Skadden Public Service Fellowship to start a counseling center for entrepreneurs in the under-resourced community of East Palo Alto, California. Although she wasn't directly working with high school students at the time, Klahr agreed to help the four students as long as they promised to stay in school.
Klahr soon saw that while these students possessed enormous potential, they were unmotivated to achieve academically because they didn't see the link between success in school and making money. She began to teach the students basic entrepreneurship principles, located investors, and helped incorporate the students' t-shirt and sweatshirt company, all while demonstrating how education, especially college, could prepare them for being corporate leaders. Klahr saw a parallel between these four students and the many others in the area who were struggling to make the same connection between education and success in the real world, and so she founded BUILD.
How Entrepreneurship Promotes College Attendance
BUILD is a four-year high school elective program that uses entrepreneurship as a vehicle to change the future of at-risk students. By combining a rigorous entrepreneurship-focused curriculum with academic mentoring components, BUILD fosters a college-going culture among students and forges a connection between the importance of college attendance and future career aspirations. BUILD believes that students are most determined to excel in school when their class work has real-world applications. As Will Keim, a teacher at Oakland Tech High School explained, "Oftentimes the student is right on the edge, and there is nothing tying them to school. BUILD gives the students something to keep them interested and invested in school."
During the four years students participate in the BUILD program they learn the principles of entrepreneurship by developing a business plan, securing seed capital through a pitch to a venture capitalist, and ultimately running their own businesses. Throughout this process, BUILD helps students engage their high school curriculum, especially math and writing, and prepare high-quality college applications that highlight their successes while in the program. "BUILD has helped me become successful by teaching me to use my strengths and working around my weaknesses. I am willing to try new things with enthusiasm and courage, and I try to help people who struggle like me," said Rocio, a high school senior, "I'm going to be the first in my family to go to college. I will have to work twice as hard, but I know I'll be successful."
Plans for National Expansion
BUILD currently serves more than 700 students at 11 high schools in northern California and Washington, DC. The program boasts an incredible 100 percent college acceptance rate for all of its seniors, 80 percent of whom are the first in their family to go to college. Klahr continues to lead BUILD as its CEO, and is planning for the program's national expansion in the next 10 years, focusing on cities like Boston and other areas with struggling school systems.