11/29/2013 05:00 EST | Updated 01/28/2014 05:59 EST

Canada's youngest entrepreneurs get a head start at school

It turns out that Generation Y, the under-30 crowd that is often maligned as lazy and self-serving, may be full of would-be entrepreneurs who are embracing the idea of being their own bosses. Surveys show it and a few school boards have noticed. They've tapped into that interest with popular programs that foster entrepreneurial skills in a whole new way.  

“On my god. [It’s] night and day,” says Angela Zezza, comparing her elementary education to that of her three sons. “I mean we were a paper-pencil school, right? And, maybe we did a few presentations.”

Twice as likely to start own business

All three of her boys fit into the loosely defined Generation Y – born after the early 1980s and before the 2005 mark.

They are part of a generation that is twice as likely to start a business in the next year, according to a new survey that questioned the older members of the Generation Y group. Sixteen per cent of respondents said they wanted to pursue a business venture within the next 12 months, compared to the Canadian national average of eight per cent.

It’s no secret that Generation Y faces an uphill battle in the job market with highly educated young people employed in low-skill jobs or underemployed, only securing part-time or contract work.

Meanwhile, Canada is among the top five places in the world to start a business, according to rankings by consulting firm Ernst & Young. A thriving entrepreneurial environment coupled with lacklustre employment numbers for young adults may make self-starting a more appealing option.

Business skills targeted at junior high level

Perhaps it was these factors that pushed the Peel District School Board - which serves the Ontario communities of Brampton, Caledon and Mississauga - to start offering entrepreneur classes to its middle-school students

"We're providing students with real life and practical experiences to develop the skills of tomorrow, today in the middle-school level," says Katina Paleologos, the principal of Allan A. Martin senior public school, which first started offering an international business and technology stream in 1994.

Throughout Grades 6 to 8, students learn the social, technological and business skills to help them navigate the modern business world.

Grade 6 kids study social enterprises, which focus on improving quality of life rather than generating profits. By Grade 7, students develop their own apps. But, the biggest venture comes near graduation, when students pitch and sell a product during the school's annual trade show.

"They're basically practising as young entrepreneurs by the end of Grade 8," says Paleologos.

The students also visit a local One of a Kind Show, attend assemblies where graduates speak about their new endeavours and produce creative presentations, such as online scavenger hunts using QR codes.

High demand expands program

Far from the only business-oriented program for kids, the IBT stream is hugely popular with the district's parents and kids.

​"[Students] will be on the bus for two hours coming to [school] and then on the bus back home for another two hours just to take this program," Paleologos says.

Kids undergo an application process, which includes a teamwork challenge, before being accepted into the competitive stream.

Every year, Paleologos has had to turn kids away as applicants far outnumber spots.

This year, the school, which previously only taught grades seven and eight, added grade six to its roster. Still, out of about 700 hopefuls, Paleologos could only offer places to 56 sixth graders and 140 seventh graders.

Luckily, two more middle schools started offering the IBT stream in 2013 to meet the demand. A local high school also offers the program for graduates interested in continuing their business studies.

Zezza's youngest son, 11-year-old Nicholas, attends Allan A. Martin and hopes to continue in IBT after he graduates. His favourite thing about the program is that it shows him young people can be successful entrepreneurs, he says.

Can you teach entrepreneurialism?

Despite the curriculum's success and high demand, not everyone wholly believes that business-savvy thinking can be taught — even the school's teachers are torn.

Gail Bilecki, who has taught at the school for nine years, says the school helps students discover "something inside themselves they did not know they had."

But Omar Ali, an 11-year veteran of the program, is a bit more skeptical. "The act of being an entrepreneur can be studied and practised," he explains. "That spirit and desire to take that risk comes from within each individual."

Deborah MacKay, who has been teaching for more than two decades, says the drive or idea can't be taught, but teachers can create a safe environment for students to experiment with their creativity.

All three educators agree that their students walk away with the skills necessary to succeed in any venture they may choose to undertake — starting their own business or otherwise.

Zezza says the unique curriculum taught her sons four main skills:

- Public speaking.

- Organization.

- Teamwork.

- Logical thinking.

The teachers and principal added technological savvy and confidence to the list of top skills they attempt to cultivate in their students.

But does having those skills mean each student will own a business at some point in their life?

For the educators, that is beside the point.

"Whether they choose business or science or medicine," says principal Paleologos,"I think these skills are foundation skills that are important to help them be successful in whatever they do."