The art of the possible: Nonprofit partnership gives high school entrepreneurs a boost

Shantel Moneke has always wanted to be a fashion designer. Her friend, Alyaa Mohamed, has always wanted to be an entrepreneur. Their dreams are getting a boost from the Possible Project, a nonprofit that teaches entrepreneurship as a way to close skills and opportunities gaps and build social and emotional resilience for local high school students.

Shantel and Alyaa are both freshmen at Madison Park Vocational Technical High School, one of the Boston public schools that partners with the Possible Project, and are three months into the three-year program. It’s already making a difference.

“I’ve always been creative,” said Shantel, above right, “but I really had no idea what it takes to be a business person.” The Possible Project “is helping me to take the first steps to being my own boss,” added Alyaa, above left.

Students who participate in The Possible Project learn the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. They are mentored as they start and market their own business, sharpen important skills as employees at one of the organization’s two in-house businesses, and plan a pathway for post-high school success. The program provides students with access to the latest technology, including 3-D printers, laser cutters and business productivity software to create product prototypes and prepare their pitches. They also earn a small stipend for their participation and up to $100 for a successful pitch.


“To succeed and grow, it is critical that young people receive adult guidance, support, and encouragement,” said Gil G. Noam, EdD, founder and director of The PEAR Institute at McLean Hospital “Our research has found that the presence of a committed and encouraging adult who believes in ‘me and my future’ is an essential ingredient for many resilient youth who succeed in the face of adversity. Mentoring programs are a great way for kids to build these relationships.”


The first component of The Possible Project challenges students to come up with a business idea that addresses a problem they see in their community, develop a prototype, conduct consumer research and then develop a “pitch” to potential investors.

“We saw a lot of people who were wearing the same clothes over and over in our school,” said Shantel, whose high school has one of the lowest-income populations in the city. She and Alyaa came up with the idea to create affordable, reversible clothing with different colors and designs in the same garment. The item could be turned inside out, creating an entirely different look for the wearer.

Recently, Shantel, Alyaa, and about 20 other students from Madison Park presented their business ideas to members of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts corporate trategy team in the company’s new innovation center, Well-B. The center was created to engage business, non-profit and health care leaders and consumers in collaborative problem-solving.

The students had three minutes to present their idea in conference rooms in Well B after which the Blue Cross team evaluated the students on their presentation skills, their ideas and how well they addressed the problems they wanted to solve.

“The problem they took on wasn’t just about clothes,” said Gabe Arato a senior business consultant at Blue Cross who was impressed by Shantel and Alyaa’s pitch. "They were addressing issues ranging from poverty to identity to expression."

He added: “You can tell they care about their idea. They’re invested, not just asking for investment.”

The Possible Project aims to harness such inherent creativity in young people to develop business solutions, and to help them grow into strong, resilient adults.

“We’re on a mission to make sure every student has an equal opportunity to participate and thrive in our record-setting economy,” said Jonathan Palumbo, director of communications at the Possible Project. “Our educators work with students to develop both an entrepreneurial mindset and job-readiness skillset that leverage each student’s creativity to focus on outcomes and planning for long-term success."

Experts say these kinds of mentorship experiences are vital.

“To succeed and grow, it is critical that young people receive adult guidance, support, and encouragement,” said Gil G. Noam, EdD, founder and director of The PEAR Institute at McLean Hospital “Our research has found that the presence of a committed and encouraging adult who believes in ‘me and my future’ is an essential ingredient for many resilient youth who succeed in the face of adversity. Mentoring programs are a great way for kids to build these relationships.”

Noam and his colleagues developed the Holistic Student Assessment, widely used by educators and behavioral health practitioners to measure 14 social/emotional skills and attitudes in students, including empathy, emotional control and optimism, among others.

The Possible Project administers the assessment to its students at the end of their third year in the program and finds that students report significant improvement on 11 of 14 skills and attitudes measured, while 80 percent of students reporting some growth on most elements the HSA measures.

Volunteers like those from Blue Cross’ BlueCrew program also play a critical role in exposing students to the real-world business environment and providing professional input, helping students to develop confidence, Palumbo said.  Last year, Blue Cross associates donated 28,000 hours of community service through BlueCrew.

Th event was a perfect fit for Blue Cross’ innovation center, according to Sukanya Soderland, chief strategy officer.

“We created this space as a place to bring people together for collaborative problem-solving that addresses the needs of all the communities we serve,” Soderland said. “I was so impressed with the energy and enthusiasm of the young people in the Possible Project.” 

The Possible Project launched eight years ago in Cambridge and has grown over the years to reach students from five area high schools. It expanded to Boston’s Madison Park High three years ago.

The program reports it is having a significant impact. Students who participate have a 41 percent higher graduation rate compared to non-participants and 99 percent of participants have applied to college with a 100 percent acceptance rate.

Both Alyaa and Shantel are still thinking about their options after high school -- they are, after all, only 14 and 15 respectively. But both are certain the Possible Project has made a difference in their lives.

“With this,” said Shantel, “I have a good future.”

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