Originally published on Let Grow on 11/29/2021
Traditional approaches to teaching entrepreneurship too often become a boring exercise in classroom abstraction.
Compare this to the Acton Children’s Business Fairs, where children ages 6-14 become entrepreneurs for a day. Often held on Saturdays, from 10 am-1pm, the fairs are like a farmers market for kids, with tables and white pop-up tents overhead. This is NOT a classroom exercise!
We give children a simple framework — the “Three Magic Seeds” — to start a business:
- Passion—What do you love? What can you make with your own hands?
- Customers—Who is your customer? What might your customer enjoy?
- Profit—What are you going to do with all the money you make?!
After that, the Acton Children’s Business Fair invites kids to do everything themselves. They create the products, come up with pricing, work with friends, and sell, sell, sell. They handle the money themselves. If they need a loan, they agree to pay back their parents, aunts or uncles, or grandparents. Crucially, the Acton Children’s Business Fair asks parents to take a step back and let their children grow.
What kinds of things do the kids sell? 4 Stories
Danielle, age 13, loves to bake cookies and make lasagna. When she thought about what problem she was going to solve, she observed that moms (including her own) work hard! Wouldn’t they love it if someone else made dinner? And with that, Danielle had the idea for her business. She would teach teens and preteens to cook. To that end, she created recipe cards and YouTube videos. She called her business Save the Moms, and her pitch was, “Moms, kick back and watch your teenager make you dinner tonight!” Danielle made $2,000 in sales in her first week launching at the Acton Children’s Business Fair of Washington, DC.
Kalimah launched a business called Dinkra Stylez also at the fair in DC, when she was 12. Her fun, colorful and educational products included hair beads, keychains, and greeting cards, all incorporating the Dinkra symbols of the ancient empire of Ghana. Following the fair she was invited to open her own pop-up shop in the Congress Heights Arts and Culture Center in Washington, DC. Since then, Kalimah has been featured on television, accepted into the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, a national entrepreneurship program, and selected to work with The Home Shopping Network to distribute her products.
Avery, age 11, loves making homemade bread and fresh, warm cinnamon rolls, using recipes passed down from his great grandma. But he wanted to do more. So for his business, Baker Boy, he decided to offer one loaf for $6 or two loaves for $10. He then invited customers to put a loaf in a basket and promised to take the bread to So Others Might Eat, a soup kitchen nearby. Sure enough, his basket soon overflowed with generosity! Avery was proud to donate over 20 loaves to the soup kitchen who served his homemade bread with dinner that very night.
Reese, age 11, loved stuffed animals and…mischief. So she bought a crate of old Beanie Babies on Ebay and proceeded to cut off all their the heads! She then hand-sewed them back onto different bodies to create new, clever and often creepy creations. She called her business “Wild & Wacky Pets.” She gave each creature a name and a back story. For instance, Beagoose had the head of a beagle and body of a goose, loved to eat asparagus, and enjoyed spelunking in caves. Kids fell in love with these Frankenstein creatures!
Show and Sell
These are just a few stories of the 44,582 young entrepreneurs, from over 954 Acton Children’s Business Fairs, held in 305 cities and 16 countries since its founding. The fair was started by parents Jeff and Laura Sandefer and their boys Charlie and Sam in Austin, TX. Since then, the fairs have earned press and praise. For instance, The Washington Post quipped, “Forget show and tell: these young entrepreneurs show and sell.”
My wife, Nicole, and I have hosted the Acton Children’s Business Fair in Washington, DC since 2015. Each year we are reminded that children are far more powerful than we imagine.
The biggest lessons learned are often not about business, per se. Instead, the children cherish the chance to do something themselves, without parents interfering. Here are some of the things they appreciate most, in their own words:
“I appreciate that grown-ups do not get to help”
- “The chance that it gives us to do something more than what people think. People think children are not interesting all the time.”
- “I appreciate that grown-ups do not get to help and the kids get to make up their own ideas and sell the product.”
- “I love how each of us can create something we love and not be limited by what is easy. I love that we can take a risk and work hard.”
- “I appreciated getting to be the one selling. It was also fun because we got to be the adults and the adults had to buy from us.”
- “It was the awesomest thing I’ve ever seen!”
Freedom, passion, vision, creativity, hard work, thrift, customer focus, responsibility. These are some of the lessons learned. But it’s also a fun way to give families a taste of what Acton Academy schools are all about.
What is the Acton Academy?
Nicole and I run the Acton Academy of Washington, DC, just a few blocks from the White House. Acton combines Montessori ideas, Harvard Business School-style Socratic discussions, mixed-age classrooms, and real-world projects like the business fair. We invite children to imagine themselves as the heroic protagonist in their own adventure in life. It ‘s a way of discovering their unique talents and passions, while developing the habits of mind and character needed to bring them all together. We started the school for our own daughter and other children in our community.
Last year was our daughter’s first Acton Children’s Business Fair. She sold hand-folded origami—$1 for easy origami like cats and dogs and $2 for hard origami like sailboats. She made $42 profit! She felt so happy and proud.
But sometimes the deepest lessons learned are not by children, but by parents. Each year, at the start of the fair, children are excited and nervous. There are even a few tears. It can be painful for parents to step away and let their children sell on their own.
However, without fail, by the end of the fair—only three hours later!—children have sold something and are having fun. I vividly recall one mom who came up to me after the fair who reflected on her daughter’s growth and tearfully admitted, “I was worried that she couldn’t do it.”
Start a Fair — or a School
For parents, entrepreneurs, innovators, and creators—this is a call to action. Start an Acton Children’s Business Fair for your own kids and community. The Acton team will give you a kit to help you launch and some prize money to get started. You can begin with just a few tables, keep it simple, and have fun. In the meantime, an easy first step for your child is The Let Grow Project .
Or if you’re feeling extra inspired, consider joining the hundreds of parent entrepreneurs around the world who have started an Acton Academy for their own children. Every day we talk to parents who are looking for something more meaningful, joyful, and inspiring. For more information, please visit Start.ActonAcademy.
And if you’d like an origami cat…
You’ll have to ask my daughter.