Saturday, November 9, 2013

How an 18 Year Old Entrepreneur Changed the Way I Teach

Post by Mark Pisel: This is Mark's 4th year in teaching HS Business courses, the last three years at Bettendorf. Before going into teaching, Mark worked as an account executive.

A while back I read a story about Stacey Ferreira and her brother.  They had started their own business, My Social Cloud, and had successfully landed nearly $1 million in seed money to further develop their product and expand their company.   But that by itself is not what caught my attention.  It was how they were able to secure the start-up money that changed the way I look at teaching.  

Stacey Ferreira, who was only 18 years old and was living in a 715 square foot apartment with her brother, followed Richard Branson, founder and CEO of Virgin Enterprises (Virgin Mobile, Virgin Records, and Virgin Airlines are a few of his subsidiaries), on Twitter and saw the following tweet:

Enjoy intimate cocktails with me in Miami on June 15th - $2,000 to charity.For details email:
— richardbranson (@richardbranson) June 10, 2011
Ms. Ferreira saw an opportunity.  She and her brother each borrowed $2,000, contacted Branson’s community investment group, and were accepted as guests.  When Ms. Ferreira arrived at the party, she was able to meet Branson and get his contact information.  After several rounds of communication about her company, Branson sent the Ferreiras to meet with Jerry Murcck of Insight Venture Partners, offering to match whatever investment Mr. Murcck was willing to make in their company.  Soon, Ferreira and her brother would be running a million dollar business, backed by one of the most famous CEOs in American business history!

The more I digested that story, the more I asked myself,  How can I create an environment where students can make connections, take chances, and are so motivated that they want to learn even when they are not in class?  

Make Connections

My Social Cloud would not be what it is today without social media.  Not that Stacey Ferreira wouldn’t have eventually made it, but without the instant access to others, it would have taken years.  I believe that every student in my class should have the opportunity to connect with someone they can consider a mentor.  Students are urged to contact an expert in industry that can help them better understand their projects.  Students have had conversations with a VP of Manufacturing in Boston, a Marketing Coordinator from the Chicago Cubs, local business owners, among others.  In our Tech Support Internship class, a student reached out to an app development company.  After a video conference and several email exchanges, the app strategist referred the student to individuals at Fordham University and they are now exchanging x-code to develop an app for our high school.  Connecting with students, experts, and others outside of the classroom builds a sense of accomplishment and accountability inside the classroom. It pushes students outside of their comfort zones to a level where learning takes on a life of it’s own.  Students begin to understand that the project is bigger than a grade. It is an opportunity to collaborate and share with people around the world.   

Take Chances

Had Stacey Ferreira not taken a chance, My Social Cloud may not exist.  The classroom should be a place where students can take chances.  In order to do so, they must embrace failure.  Last year, when Facebook went public, many stories were circulating about individuals who had become millionaires overnight.  Joe Green was not one of them.  He was Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard roommate and was asked by Zuckerberg to drop out to work on Facebook full time.  Zuckerberg and Green had gotten into some trouble with Harvard for their previous project they had worked on together.  So, Green, taking the advice of his father, a Harvard professor, declined Zuckerberg's offer.  Green estimates his share of the company would have been four to six percent.  That would be worth nearly $3 Billion today.   By most people’s standards, this was an epic failure on his part.  But that didn't deter Green from pursuing his passion.  He later founded, which has now raised over $50 million for charities and made Green a millionaire himself.    

When working outside your comfort zone, failure is going to happen at some point.  I began telling the students there was no way they would go through my class without failing at something, so it’s okay to take risks.  This allows them to think big without worry.  In fact, the very first exercise we do in class is designed so that the whole class fails.  We then analyze the situation, discuss all the reasons we failed, and reference that activity throughout the quarter.  Modeling failure and recovery is essential.  I am not afraid to stop a lesson in the middle and explain in a different way.  There are times that I will toss an assignment altogether.  I even do it on purpose so that students can see me failing and know that I am not deterred by it.  I simply analyze the situation, am open and honest about the results I am seeing, and make a decision to do things differently.  All of this happens while the students are watching and listening to me go through this process.   

The reality is, in our education system today, grades do matter.  So you have to structure the points system so that students can fail, yet have time to recover from that failure.  Selling a student on the idea of “going for it”, and then having them fail the class because they took your advice can leave a life-long scar on that student.  So the message, as well as the time to recover, are equally important.

A New Culture to Motivate

One of the main factors that was holding my students back from the type of success that My Social Cloud had was me.  I don’t think I was doing a bad job or teaching in a wrong way.  Students were learning and were usually engaged.  But I realized that I was doing what was comfortable.  I was playing it safe.  If the students weren’t acting up and they scored well on their exams, then everything was good.  But after reading about My Social Cloud, I knew there was more out there for the students.  And every day that I went back to the same class structure, the same philosophy, and the same classroom environment, my students were missing out on opportunities.  

Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo said,  "I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that's how you grow. When there's that moment of 'Wow, I'm not really sure I can do this,' and you push through those moments, that's when you have a breakthrough."   When I read this, I knew it was time to change.  I had to get out of my comfort zone and create more opportunities for my students.  

To create opportunities for students,  I knew I had to change their thought process.  I began stressing that the learning was bigger than the grade.  What mattered were the connections you can make, the effort you put in, the learning - actual learning - that takes place as a result of that effort, and the quality of the work you produce.  If the maximum effort is there, you will learn and the grade will take care of itself.  This mindset is tough for students to buy into at first.  They want to know exactly what to do and how to do it so they can meet the requirements for whatever grade they want. I wanted to develop a different type of culture in my classroom.  

In creating a new culture in my classroom I have noticed that my students are starting to engage now more than ever.  Last year, my Entertainment Marketing class partnered with a band out of Chicago and were “hired” to create a social media campaign for the band’s upcoming east coast tour.  The band had created three music videos that we promoted.  One night around 11,  just before going to sleep,  I checked my school email.  I found a message from one of my students--

“Mr. Pisel - we had almost 300 views of the video today!  I put together this spreadsheet to track it.  Is there any way we can continue this project over the summer?” - The Next Stacey Ferreira

"Google's Marissa Mayer: Passion is a gender-neutralizing force ..." 2012. 8 Nov. 2013 <>


  1. Mark,
    I am impressed by the way you are taking what is taught in your classroom and making it relevant to students real lives. The project with Great Divide was amazing and allowed students to push their learning outside the four walls of the classroom. This is the first I have heard of the app development, but I can't wait to see what your students do with that. How many students can put on a resume that they developed an app or led a bands marketing campaign? You inspire me to do similar things with my students on a smaller scale.

  2. Mark,
    I have been fortunate to witness your commitment and growth as a teacher who believes in establishing a classroom culture where students own their learning. It is a tribute to your ability to foster a climate of trust that your students do not fear failure, but rather embrace it because they know something positive will come from it. I commend you for your courage and admire your ability to connect with your kids and push them further in their learning than they ever believed possible. We are blessed to have to you at Bettendorf!