Image courtesy Natasha Sams

Since the ‘80s, Kentucky leaders have created programs to ensure that the state’s “best and brightest” wouldn’t leave the Commonwealth to pursue educational and career opportunities elsewhere. The Governor’s Scholars Program was created in 1983 and the Governor’s School for the Arts in 1987.

In 2013, Kentucky leaders, in a prescient move, created a program to give high school students an opportunity to explore their entrepreneurial spirits and pitch their business startup ideas. Louisville Future spoke with Natasha Sams, the executive director of the Governor’s School for Entrepreneurs (GSE) about the program and what results it’s seen so far.

Tell us about GSE.

Sams: We are one of the first programs of its kind in the nation. For Kentucky to come out and to be the state that led that charge is so cool. We are so thankful for the foresight of the individuals who started this program and see entrepreneurship as a vehicle to change lives.

Describe the program.

Sams: It’s a summer residential intensive. When teens apply, we don’t consider GPA or standardized test scores at all. We feel that those things limit the creativity and brilliance that can come through our program. The program itself is three weeks long. Participants spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week with us on a college campus. They live and breathe entrepreneurship and this unique world we create for them.

In the beginning, we assemble them in teams of four. We do our best to emulate a startup experience so everyone on the team brings a different skill set, different experiences and different values. Each team goes through a problem identification workshop. We don’t ask them to apply to the program with ideas. Rather, we take them through that process. Then they work with customers to validate the problem. Their business model then becomes the solution for that problem.

They completely build a solution, which might be digital or a physical prototype. The program culminates with them getting up on stage in front of about 300 people to pitch the idea they’ve worked on over the last three weeks as a team.

In the midst of all of that, entrepreneurs come in and share their stories. The teams go on field trips to different startups so they can see the behind-the-scenes of the ‘day to day.’

What results have you seen so far?

Sams: To date, we’ve helped inspire the launch of 20 small businesses, most of which were started by high school students. We’ve had multiple teams who have filed for patents for their ideas and innovations.

Do you have specific examples of the program’s success?

Sams: One that’s in the front of my mind right now is a young lady named Abigail. In 2018, she and her team developed a little plastic insert that goes into a prescription pill bottle, limiting the number of pills that come out. So if a child somehow opens a pill bottle, the chances of overdose are then slim to none. It’s also helpful for senior populations when it comes to managing their medicine and making sure they can count appropriately. While it’s simple, that little device tackles a huge problem.

Abigail now has a patent on it and has been getting letters of intent from different pharma companies across the country. She’s been working with manufacturers to bring the product to life. Her next step is to pitch in front of stores like CVS or Walgreens to see if they would be interested in purchasing the product and implementing it through a developmental stage. This has completely radicalized her life; she has this passion that will go on to save lives.

A young man named Thaddeus came through GSE in 2017. That year, we did a workshop on cryptocurrency. He became obsessed with cryptocurrency and Bitcoin. We got an email from him after our program. He said that he’d invested in Bitcoin, and although he knew it was a risk, he was using everything he learned from GSE. He added that he knew it was going to turn out alright. Well, he was right. Three months later, Bitcoin’s value tripled. He made an outrageous amount of money on this investment. He pulled that money out and started a landscaping company in Louisville at 15 years old. That company now has over 500 full-time employees. He doesn’t need a ‘normal’ job like most people do, because of the way he has invested his time.

What area does GSE serve?

Sams: We are a statewide program, serving all 120 counties. We work with cabinets at the state level. Our home cabinet is the [Kentucky] Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, and we also work with the Cabinet for Economic Development. Depending on where we are regionally, we will connect with innovation hubs so students can continue their ideas. We’ve worked to establish a statewide network of resources for them.

Last, why do you think Kentucky should encourage entrepreneurship development?

Sams: While the GSE experience is three weeks in length, its implications are lifelong. Kentucky is making enormous strides in the national arena of entrepreneurship, and GSE is proud to be the catalyst that is nurturing, inspiring and enabling our youth to unleash their innate entrepreneurial spirit. Encouraging entrepreneurship in Kentucky is vital to not only our growth, but also to our sustainability — and possibly more importantly — the retention and cultivation of our future workforce.