Nonprofit Aims to Jumpstart West Virginia Entrepreneurship at Teen Level

Aug 1, 2019

Earlier this year, eight girls from Lincoln County High School went on an adventure out West. The trip was made possible by a nonprofit called Standwatch Academy, a group that teaches rural high school kids about entrepreneurship. 

While they networked with owners of the Denver Biscuit Company in Colorado and the Hauer Horse Ranch in Moab, Utah, the young women also hiked through national parks, rode horses and explored new foods. 

The Standwatch Academy dates back to 2015, according to its founder, Zac Northup. This was Northup’s fourth class — in 2018 he offered three classes at Teays Valley Christian School, and this fall the program will again include students from Lincoln County, in addition to Nicholas County High School and the Calhoun-Gilmer Career and Technical Education Center.

“If we are to grow ourselves in West Virginia out of this situation — and we have a situation, let’s be honest, we’re almost last in everything — the only way we’re going to do that is by creating a young class of entrepreneurs who are willing to go out and see the world, but come back and start their businesses at home,” Northup said. “They need to view West Virginia as an untapped market rather than a blackhole.” 

Before the class’s capstone trip to Colorado and Utah, the girls completed a series of workshops in January with Marshall University business professor Ben Eng. 

The workshops and the students’ out-of-state journey were captured on film by a crew of college journalists at Marshall University, for a documentary called “Unwritten” that premiered in July. The film will air on West Virginia Public Broadcasting in September. 

During the workshops, students honed in on an array of business ideas they developed themselves. Some of those pitches include medical technology, phone apps and stores. 

Upcoming Junior at Lincoln County High School, Jozelyn Pauley, said the program has inspired her to consider opening a bakery that would serve customers of all dietary restrictions and preferences. 

Pauley spoke about her experience on a panel discussion on July 28th at Marshall University, at the premier of the film “Unwritten”. She said she enjoyed visiting the Denver Biscuit Company in Colorado most and meeting its owners. 

“It wasn’t even just the entrepreneurship side of it, but also getting to know people and taste some different foods,” Pauley said.

Brooke Harless, who is also going into her junior year, said she hadn’t even hadn’t even considered entrepreneurship as a post-grad option before entering the program. 

“I didn’t think I wanted to do anything with business, but then they came and we kind of started talking about it, and now I just kind of figured it’s something I like,” Harless said. 

Previous Standwatch Academy groups at Teays Valley High School have also traveled in 2018 to Colorado and to Silicon Valley. 

Standwatch Academy alumni McKenzie Myers and Kathryn Alley, both of whom just graduated Teays Valley Christian School, were at the premiere for “Unwritten”, where they witnessed the Lincoln County students having a similar experience to their own.  

“It was my first time out West, my first time on a plane, my first time that far from home and for that long of a period,” Alley said. “So I definitely could relate to them, how their eyes were opened and their jaws dropped at seeing these amazing sites for the first time.” 

Marshall University students filmed a documentary on the Lincoln County students' experience with Standwatch Academy.
Credit Zac Northup / Standwatch Academy

A Joint Effort

Northup said one big difference between the Lincoln County class and the first three groups of Standwatch classes offered at Teays Valley Christian School was the students’ experience with Simulated Workplace, an initiative from the West Virginia Department of Education to give high school students more of a leadership role in the classroom through real-life working situations. 

Deanna Canterbury-Penn, who coordinates Career and Technical Education for the state Department of Education, said to participate in the Simulated Workplace program,  high school-aged students apply for jobs. That process can involve drug testing, submitting resumes and completing interviews. 

“The teachers are there to give them an education, but the students are there as managers, as safety managers, as quality control managers -- and that’s how they run their classrooms,” Canterbury-Penn said. 

As part of the Simulated Workplace program, Lincoln County High School students run Panther Publishing, which covers design work for the community. 

Many of the Lincoln County students who participated in Standwatch were introduced to the program through another existing business resource in their school -- Lincoln County High School’s only business teacher, Courtney Frazier.

“I don’t think going through my program only sets up a path to go through business,” she said. “It shows [students] some of the prerequisites of how to be an employee, how to show up on time and wear your uniform, how to keep track of deadlines and timelines.”

For students and other specifically interested in business, Northup said his next three classes will focus more on ways to attract start-up capital and how to remain sustainable. 

“The biggest hurdle that any entrepreneur has to overcome in West Virginia is not ideas,” Northup said. “We’ve got a lot of great ideas. It’s start up capital. We don’t have of venture capital culture in West Virginia. ... Where Standwatch Academy is going to fit is, starting with the class in the fall, the goal is to focus on funding.”

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.