Don Wettrick: Teaching Through Entrepreneurship and Helping Teenagers find Purpose
If someone told you that a night of high school partying led them to where they are today, would you believe them? Sitting in a police station, ruminating over the poor decisions he had just made, a young Don Wettrick got an idea. It was a bold one, one of high risk, and a huge potential for failure. To make matters even worse, he knew his parents would be quick to ground him. But great returns require great risk. Before the incident there was a girl Wettrick had a crush on and tonight was the night he decided to ask her out. He figured that, most likely, she would never say yes. She would never date a guy like him, let alone a guy that was just arrested. But this was trumped by one single phrase: “What do I have to lose?”
“I just don’t see as much risk anymore because the worst mistakes in my life have been my best moments.”
She said yes. As the time spent locked in his room slowly passed, Wettrick had time to contemplate his life and the choices he would have to start making. What did the future have in store for him? Did he want to spend his life partying? What would be his passion in life? His date crept closer and closer. Wettrick decided he needed to change, rise up, and take control of his life. He was going to become somebody!
Fast-forward a few decades: that girl is now his wife. He changed his life, made a difference, and believed in himself. He found his purpose in life and built a non-profit foundation and a for-profit company. But it was this journey that started right there in the police station, all the way back in high school.
When asked about his time as a high school student, Wettrick described two general states students have while in school. The first state is compliance: going to school to learn because the state and your parents force you to go; this was the state he was in before his date. In compliance, he found no real sense of direction, no purpose in life. The second state of learning, however, is an active engagement and drive to learn in a student, a stage Wettrick eventually transitioned to. It was this realization—that when students can make the jump from compliance to active engagement—passion can be brought to their lives. Fostering this transformation in students is at the core of both StartEdUp Innovation, LLC, and the StartEdUp Foundation.
To achieve this, StartEdUp teaches through innovation and entrepreneurship.
The organization functions through two distinct branches: a non-profit and a for-profit. Similar to other business-related organizations such as DECA or FBLA, the nonprofit branch—The StartEdUp Foundation— helps teenagers get involved with innovation, business, and entrepreneurship. But that’s where the similarities end. Organizations such as DECA focus strongly on concepts rather than making pitches a reality. To Wettrick, a veteran DECA advisor, the StartEdUp Foundation takes the pitch a student would deliver in DECA or FBLA competition and makes it a reality. They foster entrepreneurial growth and innovation through events like Innovate WithIN, where winners are not just given a trophy, but the tools and capital to start their business ($100,000 in some cases). Another format they pioneered was the StartUpInnovation Night. According to their website,
“A local business or non-profit will pitch a goal they wish to achieve or an issue they face to a group of students attendees. After this, the students will move into groups to brainstorm/prototype a solution and end the evening by pitching it. These companies often choose to work with student groups afterward in order to implement these solutions.”
For Indiana students, the StartEdUp Foundation is their entrepreneurial advocate, connecting them with the tools and resources to bring their idea to life. But that’s the non-profit arena. Wettrick needed cash flow, so StartEdUp LLC was created, a company that has created a curriculum for schools and individuals to purchase.
StartEdUp LLC works with the StartEdUp Foundation to provide schools with an innovation curriculum. The business model is simple. StartEdUp’s product is their curriculum which includes online classes, in-person workshops, and staff training, depending on the tier chosen. Along with this, Wettrick hosts a weekly podcast with experts in education, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Their customer? Schools looking to adopt their platform, but also the individual student. Essentially, Wettrick wanted to bring a teaching style that stressed active learning and innovation to classrooms across the country.
Through StartEdUp (both the nonprofit and for-profit wings), Wettrick has gained some valuable insight from the countless people he has interviewed, but also from his own business experience. Many of my questions discussed StartEdUp, but a few of my questions were aimed at his thoughts on more general trends and topics in business.
I first asked about the “hard work is the clear path to success” message preached by success coaches online. One example that I brought up was Real-Estate developer Grant Cardone’s 10x rule, which posits that business success is the result of ten times the amount of effort into a task than what you think it requires. Though Wettrick agreed that hard work is a key factor in gaining success, it is not the only factor. Many people will work long hours and “get after it” or “hustle”, but see meager results. This occurs because they are not working with efficiency and planning. Successful individuals allocate their time wisely and spend time analyzing where they are putting all their efforts and adapt their schedules as needed.
Another one of these more abstract questions was getting his opinion on entrepreneurs in history, specifically industrial titans such as JP Morgan or Andrew Carnegie. What lessons could be gleaned from them? The answer that followed led to a discussion of social entrepreneurship, and role companies can play in bettering the world. Though these titans achieve great wealth, their companies did so without a social “north star”.
As time progresses and people become more invested in social equality, we are starting to see the good that companies can do for the world. Wettrick attributed part of his company’s success to the educational good it fosters. This is good for many organizations: by connecting to a larger cause, you give your employees a “north star” to work towards. But social entrepreneurship also affects the customer. If they have peace of mind that your organization is rooted in a good cause, they are more likely to buy from you and foster customer rapport. Along with this, it supercharges your PR and marketing efforts.
However, despite the enticing benefits, Wettrick warns that your company must be genuine in its dedication, or it can risk its brand integrity. TOMS Shoes is a perfect example of this phenomenon. TOMS prided itself on donating a large part of their profits to poor countries around the world. But when it was revealed that their “generosity” was moreso a marketing stunt, it was clear to customers and stakeholders that TOMS wasn’t in the business of saving the world. TOMS used pathos to sell shoes. Having social entrepreneurship as a north star can be good, but any budding entrepreneur should be sure that they are committed to making a difference for their cause. If an organization is going to take on social causes purely for the PR, it’s best just to stay out.
StartEdUp, however, isn’t in it for the PR, they want to fulfill their cause: giving teenagers purpose. Back when Wettrick was a high school teacher, he noticed something, as many adults often do with teenagers. As a group, they lacked drive. They had dreams but there was so little momentum to make them a reality. His students filled their free time with sleeping in on weekends, binge-watching TV, or wasting time on social media. Now, this wasn’t to say that there were no industrious or passionate students, but for every one of those students, there were dozens that didn’t share those traits. He realized that a lot of the reason why his students would let all this time go to waste was that they didn’t have something in their lives to push them to learn. Wettrick knew this to be true because as a high schooler himself, he had no purpose. C’s and B’s were the hallmarks of his report card and the notion of teaching innovation hadn’t yet crossed his mind. He was just one of the thousands of students forced to sit through classes they hated.
That all changed when he met his future wife. He vowed to himself that he would make something of himself. To keep his girlfriend, he would have to level up. Over time, as a teacher, he demonstrated his entrepreneurial spirit and created a new system of learning, all to help teens in their communities enact positive change and find a purpose in their school years.
Due to his experiences, Wettrick has one major recommendation for teens: produce. Make something instead of consuming something. It doesn’t even need to be connected with any sort of career. It just needs to be something you produce. It could be a video, a computer program, a board game, or even a new recipe. Do you like to ride bikes? Write a journal about your bike rides. Then once you have that journal, you will look back at some of your entries and say, “Hey, what if I make a website and post my riding stories?” You make a website which leads to more doors. You start making biking videos, hosting bike classes, and open a small used bike shop. You have become an entrepreneur! If you just take that first step, no matter how small or how inconsequential you think it will be, you will soon find that the first step you took led to a plethora of opportunities. So go to that club meeting you want to go to, make that video, play that guitar, and post it on social media! You never know where it will take you.
Notes from the Author
While I write this, I think about just how true the notion of “production” has been in my life. One of my hobbies is cooking and a few years ago I took a class that taught Videography. Just for fun, I decided to make a cooking video a few years back and I found out that people really enjoyed it. Though I officially released the channel a few weeks ago, I have found how much good it has done for me and the community. Though the channel is very small, I am glad to be producing something!
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