Smart City Saturday: Teen hackathon addresses youth trafficking


Guest contributor Sarah Hernholm is the founder and president of WIT – Whatever It Takes and creator of Smart City Saturday, which hosts teen hackathons in four U.S. cities. She joins us on the blog to explain what’s in store for teens who join the upcoming January hackathon in downtown Austin.

We aren’t voiceless.
—Grace V., during her interview on NBC 7
when asked why she attended Smart City Saturday

Many of the teens who attend Smart City Saturday (SCS) arrive to the event feeling a little apprehensive, slightly unsure of what to expect, and unaware of the transformation they are about to experience. From the get-go, they are diving into the topic of the hackathon. This year, 2018–2019, SCS is focusing on youth trafficking—specifically challenges connected to education and prevention. Teens get to hear from survivors and thrivers and work directly with experts in the subject matter as well as coaches in design thinking and problem solving. They work alongside teens from different schools, backgrounds, and ages. The experience is a game changer for all involved. You can hear directly from teens who’ve experienced SCS in this video from a San Diego news report:

Upcoming Austin Hackathon

We are excited to bring the Smart City Saturday hackathon to Austin, Texas, on Saturday, January 26, from 10am to 6:30pm. The event will be hosted by Google at Google HQ downtown. Thanks to Snap Kitchen, all teens will enjoy a delicious and healthy lunch. In addition, SCS has partnered with Socrata, the City of Austin, and other organizations to make sure teens have access to data, resources, and individuals who will help them have a successful hackathon experience. 

Getting Involved

SCS is looking for 50 teens who are ready to tackle the issue of youth trafficking in Austin. Applications are being accepted online here. Once your application is received, it will be reviewed, and you will receive acceptance information within 48 hours. There are fees associated with this event, but financial aid is provided to all teens in need. Also, all teens have the chance to win up to $1,000 in prize money. 

Never Too Young

Smart City Saturday is a program put on by the nonprofit organization WIT – Whatever It Takes. WIT provides opportunities for high school teens to develop their emotional intelligence as they become entrepreneurs and community activists. It hosts the only 6-unit college-credit social entrepreneur class in the country for high school teens. You can read more about WIT at The people of WIT believe you are never too young to make a big impact.

Sarah Hernholm

Nurturing young writers and entrepreneurs through NaNoWriMo

Staffmembers at The Joule School in Cedar Park, just north of Austin, join us on the blog today to explain the school’s approach to National Novel Writing Month and the ways it has changed how its young students view writing, entrepreneurship, and themselves.

When first-grader Ripley Martinez walked into a school assembly, she had no idea she would soon be showered in cash. Within 30 minutes, she was jumping up and down with joy as $76—all her own—rained down around her onto the floor.

Ripley celebrates her writing and entrepreneurial achievements at The Joule School’s NaNoWriMo kickoff

Ripley celebrates her writing and entrepreneurial achievements at The Joule School’s NaNoWriMo kickoff

That's how much Ripley made selling her novel since last November. You read that correctly: a 5-year-old had written and marketed her own book. Even more impressive, Ripley’s book, Lollipop Girl in a Lollipop World, had just broken the school’s record for number of copies sold. She was surrounded by cheering classmates engulfing her with hugs, and her teacher was crying with pride.

The Joule School, a progressive K–8th private school in Cedar Park, participates each year in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Young Writers Program. You might be familiar with the adult competition, in which anyone can attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. The NaNoWriMo organization offers suggested word-count goals and a certificate for grade-school students who complete a modified version of the competition.

The Joule School does NaNoWriMo in a big way. First, it raises the bar—increasing the word count minimum for their students by up to 3,000 words per grade level. Suggested word-count goals for Kindergarten, when Ripley wrote her book, range from 20 to 200 words, but she was encouraged to hit 500. (This is equivalent to the “advanced” category for second-grade students in the national program.) If students rise to the challenge, Joule celebrates by arranging to have their hard work published and placed for sale on Amazon. Then, at the beginning of every November, authors from the previous year are recognized at an awards ceremony and handed cold, hard cash—their royalties from a year’s worth of online sales.

Of course, merely placing the book on Amazon doesn’t sell copies. Ripley publicized her book all over Austin, wherever she went. Her mother reported, “I went to get my oil changed and stepped outside for a few seconds. When I came back, Ripley was encouraging the receptionist to buy her novel.” (She even went behind the desk and pulled up the link to make the checkout process easier!) Her sales pitch was simple: “Can you please buy my book? It’s on sale on Amazon if you look up ‘Ripley Martinez.’” Determination and a dash of innate childlike charm did the trick, and now Ripley has 76 more bucks to spend on “Hatchimals, LOL Dolls, and . . . more books.”

Ripley’s novel is about “a candy girl adventuring and finding her friends,” according to the young author. When asked where she derived her inspiration, she said simply, “Candy.” (A glimpse into the mysterious creative processes of a visionary.) Her teacher, Meredith Allen, said Ripley was encouraged by meeting—and then exceeding—her incremental word-count goals. All over the school, individual floor-to-ceiling progress trackers (similar to a fundraising thermometer) were plastered on the walls. At the end of each day, Ms. Allen would type up her students’ handwritten work and let them check their totals. (Incidentally, this is not unlike Margaret Atwood’s writing process.) She says the students felt gratified when they used the word-count tool to see how much they had accomplished each day. It quantifies their success in a way that is readily accessible to them.

Students’ published works on display at The Joule School

Students’ published works on display at The Joule School

The Joule School’s approach to NaNoWriMo develops more than just literacy skills. As the students complete the process, they learn about gross versus net income, active versus passive income, marketing, and other elements of entrepreneurship. The entire student body, from three-year-olds to eighth-graders about to matriculate to high school, can opt in. Ripley’s novel grossed $285 in 12 months, but she knew she would have to pay publishing costs and taxes. She also knew that the money she would get on November 1st was all her own, free and clear. What better way to teach a young child about net profit?

More importantly, however, students at The Joule School associate joy, achievement, and success with the act of writing—something that can be a hard sell in the elementary grades. “I’ve seen kids go from reluctant writers to enthusiastic just by completing one round of NaNoWriMo,” said Madison McWilliams, the school’s founder and principal. “You see their whole attitude change—it’s suddenly I CAN do this. Once they start believing in themselves, we can roll that over to the classroom. Suddenly the kid who wasn’t such a huge fan of writing is the most attentive student in Language Arts.”

These days, Ripley often chooses her own book to read as her bedtime story. In doing so, she generates new ideas and thinks of ways she could improve her writing. One year later, she’s decided to tackle a more complex subject: this November, she’s working on a rags-to-riches tale of redemption about a young girl living in poverty. Soon, you’ll see it on Amazon. Soon, you might just see a young girl around town asking you to buy her second book.

The Joule School staff

News that made a difference for Texas students

In the first week of this new year, we want to look back at some of the most consequential education stories—for both public schools and alternative schools—in Texas in 2016. As we look back, we see three major political flashpoints, and also some promising trends and innovations growing out of the alternative school scene in our area. Both flashpoints and innovations are listed below, with links for finding out more information about each.

Political Flashpoints

  • At the moment we were compiling this list, the Austin American-Statesman published a report revealing that “School districts across Texas pulled in lackluster preliminary grades under the state’s new letter-grade accountability system.” The new system, which won’t be fully implemented until next year, is based primarily on standardized testing and got a lot of complaints and pushback from school districts—including Austin ISD—even before the preliminary grades were released. Looks like this grading system will be an issue to watch going forward into 2017 and beyond.
  • August 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the tragedy of the sniper attack on UT’s campus, the first modern-day mass shooting. August also marked the beginning of so-called “campus carry” at Texas’s public colleges.
  • A series of investigative pieces by the Houston Chronicle revealed that the Texas Education Agency may have mandated low special education enrollment in public schools, leading to the denial of crucial services for many children and saving the state billions. The investigations are ongoing.

Trends in Alternative Education around Austin

If there are trends or major issues in Texas education you want to see explored on our blog, let us know in the comments below, and we’ll make an effort to address them in 2017. Here’s to a happy new year for all Texas kids!

Top 5 reasons why teens make great entrepreneurs

Sarah Hernholm, lead contributor of this guest post, is the founder/president of WIT—Whatever It Takes, the only six-unit college-credit social entrepreneur and leadership course in the country for high school teens. Based in San Diego, WIT has locations in St. Louis, New York, and now Austin. WIT is currently accepting applications for 2016–2017; visit to learn how. To view Sarah’s TEDx talks and read more of her thoughts on why teens rock, check out You can follow her on Twitter @miss_wit.

Also contributing to this piece were teen entrepreneurs Safi Jafri, founder of WhiteHat; Daniela Montes, president of Student 2 Student Art (S2S); and Andrew Castro, president of Choose You.


These are just a few words to describe two groups of people: teens and entrepreneurs. 

Over the last six years, through my company WIT—Whatever It Takes, I’ve spent my days working with teens and helping them become entrepreneurs and leaders in their communities. The work isn’t always easy (because of those words mentioned above), but it certainly is rewarding to see teens become more confident, empathetic, self-aware, and successful. 

And since I think most experiences are better with teens, when I was asked to write this Top 5 list, I went to teens and asked them to chime in with their reasons as to why they make great entrepreneurs. Check out some of their thoughts below.

1. Teens want to do something. I know the common societal narrative is that teens are apathetic and self-absorbed (although I think I know more adults than teens who fit that description!), what I see on a regular basis are teens who are frustrated by what is happening in their world and interested in figuring out how to make “it” better. What usually holds them back is the lack of programs/platforms available to them and those countless hours of ridiculous homework (but that’s a topic for another blog). Yet at WIT we see teens finding ways to launch a social enterprise despite their heavy school workloads. Why? Because they are passionate about doing work that actually matters to them.

2. Teens like proving you (adults) wrong.  If I wanted to apply reverse psychology on teens, I would just say, “I don’t think you can build a company,” and I know that would only fuel them to do it. But I don’t take that approach. I don’t have to. Society is already doing it. As teen Safi Jafri puts it, “. . . that teenage mind that people say can't ever be professional enough or smart enough or mature enough? Well that mind will do whatever it takes to get what they want, no matter how little you believe in their potential . . .” Just because they don’t want to do their homework doesn’t mean they don’t want to change the world.  Proving doubters wrong is a common motivation for successful entrepreneurs. As teen Andrew Castro says, “We love to prove people wrong and push the envelope.”

3. Teens aren’t carrying a lot of baggage.  As teen Pia Deshpande shared with me, “ . . . most teenagers haven't defined themselves as people yet. They never sit back and say, ‘That's not me’ like so many adults do . . . they're still exploring . . .” In other words, teens aren’t as cynical and hardened as most adults; they haven’t labeled themselves or put themselves in boxes like a lot of adults do. Also, the majority of teens don’t have a mortgage, lots of bills, debt, or dependents, so they are able to take on more risks—and being able to take risks is a great trait of an entrepreneur.

4. Teens want more “real world” experience. Most of a teen’s day is spent sitting and listening to someone tell them what they think is important. All of this is done in the hope of better preparing said teens for the “real world.” But last time I checked, I don’t spend my days sitting for 10 hours while someone talks at me. It doesn’t surprise me that teens experience burnout and want to ditch school. I would too (and did). Teens just want adults to acknowledge that the world they are living in is actually their “real world” and that they would prefer not to just talk about things in theory but instead apply the knowledge to their real world! This is why entrepreneurship is a great outlet: teens can apply math, reading, writing, public speaking, debate, etc., all while running their own business!

5. Teens want reasons to believe in themselves. Teen Daniela Montes shared with me: “At an age where insecurity is common, building entrepreneurial skills allows us to believe in ourselves and say, “Hey, I'm capable of making a difference,’ thus creating confidence, professionalism, and maturity.” Those teen years can be tough. It can be seven years of questioning your place, value, and worth and wondering if you measure up. But when you launch a business as a 16-year-old and see your efforts improve the lives of others and get recognized for your impact, you see proof that you matter and are changing lives. That tangible proof helps build confidence and self-worth, which all teens could use a little more of.

So to all those teens out there: I see you—your rebellious energy, willful determination, and desire to make a difference—and I applaud you for it!

And I want to invest in your enterprises . . . so hit me up.

Sarah Hernholm, with assistance from Safi Jafri, Daniela Montes, and Andrew Castro

Preparing students for the future of work

Photo by Greg Vojtko, 2010

Photo by Greg Vojtko, 2010

Liya James is an entrepreneur, designer, and coach at The Next Lab. She works with people of all ages to take the next step in their entrepreneurial journeys. Liya joins us today to talk about the future of work and how we can all help students prepare for success in a professional environment that is changing more rapidly than ever because of the evolving technological landscape.

Throughout history, the American education system has taken on many different shapes and forms, adapting to the needs of students and of the country as a whole. Along the way, it has slowly changed to adapt to the needs of the industrial revolution, to the insights of emerging psychology, and to the increasingly global post-WWII world.

One of the most recent major shifts has been the digital age. The first personal computer entered the market in 1973. Over the next few decades, computers and automation changed the way we worked, giving rise to the era of the knowledge worker. With machines taking on ever more manual processes, companies increasingly asked employees to innovate and go beyond “just doing their job.” Beginning in the 1990s, technology got cheaper, creating faster-moving and more competitive industries. This meant more competition for companies, and pushed everyone to innovate faster to stay ahead of the curve. This competition has pushed every major industry headfirst into the digital age.

You can see the changes in now familiar companies. Amazon has replaced the traditional brick and mortar bookstores. Netflix has dramatically altered the video and movie industry. Apple became the biggest company in the world, disrupting the music and mobile phone industry. Facebook has revolutionized the way we communicate. These companies have very different work cultures and demand that employees bring different skills to the table than their predecessors. And they continue to push change to happen more rapidly.

Before schools can adapt to the digital age, a new technological era is already upon us. Looking ahead into the next decade, many experts point toward what they are calling the advent of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, where changes will be marked by technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and 3-D printing. According to the World Economic Forum, “These developments will transform the way we live and the way we work. Some jobs will disappear, others will grow, and jobs that don’t even exist today will become commonplace. What is certain is that the future workforce will need to align its skill set to keep pace.”

The world of work that today’s high school students will enter will be markedly different from the one we are living in now. Technology will have changed, and many jobs that don’t even exist yet will be in high demand. What we do know is that almost every job will be enabled by technology and that employers will expect employees to add value and bring new ideas.

So the questions we are all faced with are:

  • What does this mean for today’s students?
  • How can we prepare them to thrive in this kind of economy?
  • What skill set can we teach them that will still be important 5, 10, and 20 years from now?

A key place to look for answers is a recent study about The Future of Jobs from The World Economic Forum that shows the top ten skills that senior executives across industries expect to be most important in 2020.

It is critical to note the top three:

  • Creativity
  • Critical Thinking
  • Complex Problem Solving

No matter what happens with technology, the value that people bring to work, and the kinds of skills that will set high performers apart, can be summed up as the ability to look at problems and opportunities from many different angles and frame them in a way that will lead to new, innovative ideas and solutions.

Employees and entrepreneurs who have the ability to imagine something that doesn’t exist right now and make it a reality will be valuable, whether inside a company or building one. It is our job, as parents and educators, to proactively help our children and students to build these skills so that no matter what field they choose to go into, they have a foundation in these enduring skills.

I’ve been seeing these changes in the business world up close, and I can tell you that their importance is only growing. I spent the past year traveling around the country teaching Fortune 500 executives how to implement design thinking in their businesses because they know the framework helps their employees build these skills in creativity and complex problem solving.

This summer, I am making it my mission to give students in Austin a head start in learning and implementing these skills by launching The Next Lab. During two separate weeklong programs, I am partnering with local business leaders to guide students through the process of taking an idea from concept to prototype and focusing on teaching the creative, critical thinking, and problem solving skills that will help them succeed, whether they want a great job with a bright future or want to start their own thing.

But being proactive about supporting these kinds of skills at home doesn’t have to wait for summer! Here are some ideas and strategies for getting started:

Embrace project-based learning. Students who are getting better at the kind of planning, problem solving, and follow-through that it takes to turn an idea into reality are getting a head start on the kind of skills they’ll need to start their own businesses or advance their careers. Whether you are looking at homeschooling options or supplementing classroom education with your own home projects, this site has a great list of 10 ways to support project-based learning at home for all ages.

Learn creative thinking. If you’re like many parents, when you see the word creativity, you immediately think about art, theater, and music. It’s true that these fields require creativity, but the future of business and technology needs as much if not more creative thinking. Mind Tools has some great tools and techniques, many of which can be adapted for teens to approach problems creatively at school or at home.

Develop an entrepreneurial mindset. This conjures up ideas of people starting businesses and slaving away in their basement. Starting your own business will always be an option, but in the new future of work, Fortune 500 businesses will need entrepreneurial thinking to innovate and stay ahead of the curve. For ideas on how to support kids who have great people skills but may struggle in school, watch this TED Talk from Cameron Herold, a Canadian entrepreneur who is raising his kids to be entrepreneurs too.

Whether at The Next Lab or in your own home, I hope that all of this helps you get a head start on the future of work!

Learn more about The Next Lab summer programs here.

Liya James


Joy is the bottom line: Entrepreneurial education in Austin

Young entrepreneurs at the annual Acton Children’s Business Fair

Young entrepreneurs at the annual Acton Children’s Business Fair

Shelley Sperry is a staff writer at Alt Ed Austin. An entrepreneur in her own right, she also works as a writer, researcher, and editor at Sperry Editorial.

When you hear the term “entrepreneurial education,” you may first think about old-school extracurricular clubs that teach kids through hands-on projects—programs such as Junior Achievement and 4-H, or even the annual ritual of Girl Scout cookie sales. What I’ve learned by investigating schools in Austin is that entrepreneurial education is a big-tent concept that includes a diverse mix of well-established and brand-new ventures. Some find the label limiting, but it’s useful for identifying schools that share a few core similarities:

  • An emphasis on projects in which kids make, market, and sell products that link them to customers and the community outside the school
  • A holistic approach that integrates mind, body, and spirit in the learning process
  • Elimination of separate, “siloed” subjects (math, science, language arts, social studies) in favor of integrated learning of all content via entrepreneurial projects
  • Use of approaches from the start-up business world to structure groups, projects, and timelines
  • De-emphasis on teachers and direct instruction in favor of mentors and guides who help students make their own decisions
  • An interest in building kids’ sense of themselves and their work as tools for making the world a better place

Austin programs that fall into this big tent include Acton Academy, Kọ School + Incubator, Sansori High School @ Whole Life Learning Center, and WonderLab.

When I interviewed Jeff Sandefer of the well-established Acton Academy and Kristin Kim of Sansori High School, which will be opening to its first class in August this year, I was struck by the fact that both approaches emphasize the importance of each student’s personal journey toward self-confidence and self-knowledge. This is something I normally would associate with twenty-somethings rather than kids in elementary, middle, and high school, but it demonstrates an essential part of the entrepreneurial education philosophy. Kids are respected as capable, contributing members of the community, even as six- or seven-year-olds.

Acton Academy’s approach is built around the notion of the “hero’s journey” usually associated with classic literature. Sandefer argues that each Acton student should understand himself or herself as on a life quest, rather than merely acquiring a set of skills or facts.

A student-led discussion at Acton Academy

A student-led discussion at Acton Academy

“It’s more about learning to persevere, to fail and get back up, to treat people with kindness, and to listen before talking,” he explains. “We start with kids as early as six and go all the way through high school, cultivating these traits. They earn more and more freedom as they get older. They learn that the better you treat people, the harder you work, the more freedom you have.”

Acton’s Children’s Business Fair is the biggest such gathering in the country and has become a major community event in Austin each fall. The fair hosts more than 100 booths and brings together students not only from Acton’s elementary, middle, and high schools, but also from across a spectrum of Austin schools and homeschooling environments who want to create products or services and market them to customers while learning business, academic, and life skills.

With Sandefer’s blessing, other educators are creating schools based on the Acton model in other parts of Central Texas, throughout the United States, and beyond. The first graduate of Acton Academy Guatemala was recently accepted into the University of California at Berkeley with a triple major in math, biology, and biosciences.

Along with local and national business leaders who support the Kọ School, founders Michael Strong and Khotso Khabele believe that all people in the world should be able to live their lives creatively and productively. In other words, everyone should have the opportunity to behave like entrepreneurs: innovating and adding value to society. They believe that happiness comes from challenging work in which individuals create something meaningful, and they argue that the best path to this kind of life is through a Socratic method of questioning and learning how to teach oneself. The Kọ School + Incubator is designed to “blur the boundary between school and the outside world.”

WonderLab describes itself as a true incubator and is less a full-time school than a gathering place that puts like-minded, entrepreneurial kids together to help each other.  Students identify their own goals and the resources and skills they need to reach those goals, and then they form teams that are assisted by an adult guide. Team members support each other and work together for a few hours each week. But even in this very practical world of achieving specific project goals, the overarching philosophy is that kids will end up exploring and defining themselves. They will be “on the path to figuring out the intersection of their gifts, their passions, and what the world needs.”

An image from the Sansori High School website that expresses one of the central principles of the program

An image from the Sansori High School website that expresses one of the central principles of the program

Kristin Kim, who is bringing her Sansori educational philosophy to Austin this year in partnership with the Whole Life Learning Center, puts holistic learning at the center. “I give talks at colleges in the U.S. and U.K., and I hear that the students in their twenties don’t know what to do with their lives and are searching. We can offer children a different way of learning so that one benefit is getting a clear sense of what they love and how they can apply it in the world. They leave high school with skills and with self-knowledge.”

Kim says that confidence and joy are the hallmarks of her approach. A sense of integration of the individual and the world outside the classroom seems to be crucial too. By way of example, Kim describes students who made beeswax candles for sale, which seems like a simple learning-about-business project, but became something much grander in its implications. Students learned important lessons in science, math, and language arts as they made and marketed the candles. “We also connected their activities with how the universe works through the structure of polymers and the ecology of bees, and connected it with their own physical bodies in terms of other cultures’ understanding of the medicinal value of honey.”

I still think the word “entrepreneurial” works to describe these diverse Austin schools, because each does develop in students a taste for creating and innovating, whether in business, science, the arts, or other pursuits. But I would also say that a “whole child” focus that brings a spiritual element to the table is just as important, and something I hadn’t expected.

As Kim says,  “What we’re doing is allowing students of all ages to experience learning not just through their brains or minds, but through their bodies and hearts. They then see themselves differently and understand the co-creative role of each human being. When you get a deep understanding of the unity between inner and outer worlds, joy is a natural consequence.”

Shelley Sperry