With 20 minutes to go before making their high-stakes start-up pitches, the wannabe entrepreneurs were understandably nervous.
In one corner of the room, Marc Pakravan and Robert Davis, who came up with the idea for an online shopping site for men's ties, were struggling to put on their own neckties. A few feet away, Jessica Chan-Ugalde looked exasperated as she chastised her partner for not knowing what a hashtag was.
Meanwhile Neil Serebryany, whose start-up idea Transformo offers language translation through a headset device, was utterly unfazed as he surveyed the last-minute frenzy.
"Boredom envelops me," he said with a wide grin that revealed a mouth full of braces. "I was ready a while ago."
All of them are local high school students who on Thursday completed a one-of-a-kind summer camp for teens hoping to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos. Instead of a graduation ceremony, the students had to present their original business idea to a panel of investors and tech executives during a mock demo day.
The students said the six-week course, "Entrepreneurship and the Start-up Life Cycle — for High School," provided the kind of education that they want but can't get during the regular academic year. Learning opportunities are plentiful for aspiring entrepreneurs during and after college, but entrepreneurial thinking is rarely taught in high schools, they say.
"I don't think it's talked about at school because people don't grasp what it means," said Davis, 16, a junior at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach. "People who are entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs, they just see them as CEOs. They don't realize what steps they took to get to the spot they are today."
Serial entrepreneur Jeff Solomon, who created and taught the course, doesn't want that to deter kids who are interested in one day creating their own businesses. A well-known figure in L.A.'s growing tech scene, he's trying to change the perception that starting a company is something that people stumble upon later in life or learn about while picking up their MBAs.
As executive director and co-founder of tech accelerator Amplify.LA, Solomon has been working closely with first-time start-up founders for years. But all of Amplify's recruits are adults — most are in their 20s — and Solomon wanted to target would-be entrepreneurs when they're even younger.
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"At the high school level, you're far enough along to have an intelligent conversation, but you're not far enough along where you're jaded and stuck and fixed in your ways," he said one day before class, held at Amplify's co-working space in Venice. "You're very moldable still. It's like the perfect spot."
His goal to help teens think big about entrepreneurship stems from his own disillusion with conventional education. Solomon said he found high school dull and uninspiring, with lessons focused on thinking inside the box. He had the second-lowest GPA in his class, didn't do well on his SATs and got accepted to just one of the 17 colleges he applied to, Arizona State.
"My experience with education is that it didn't really work that well for me," he told the teens on the first day of class. "I turned out successful — I had three companies: One sold, one is doing really well, one totally failed — but I don't look back on high school and say, 'That's why.'"
These days, entrepreneurs are getting started even earlier and many don't follow the typical classroom-to-college-to-cubicle route. Zuckerberg and Jobs famously dropped out of college. This year, 17-year-old Nick D'Aloisio made headlines when he sold his news-reading app, Summly, to Yahoo Inc. for a reported $30 million.
Harnessing young talent in L.A. is a growing priority for many of the region's top venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. Solomon's course is just one of several new youth-oriented tech initiatives being pushed by entrepreneurs.
Digital LA, a tech and entertainment organization, held student start-up pitches at its recent Silicon Beach Fest and co-hosted a panel at UCLA for students interested in working at a start-up. Another group has raised more than $100,000 to create a science- and tech-oriented fair for kids to be held in L.A. next year.
And local venture capital firm Upfront Ventures this year launched a program to help connect college students with internships at technology companies in the area. Upfront placed 26 college students during the spring semester and has more than 200 students signed up for a fall internship, said Steven Dietz, an Upfront partner.
Solomon's course focused on big-picture thinking about generating ideas, raising funding, learning how to pitch to investors and finding customers.
Students sat in a large U-shaped formation equipped with just their laptops and a seemingly endless supply of Red Vines, potato chips, sodas and Red Bull. There were no textbooks to read, syllabuses to follow or facts to memorize.
Instead, the 2 1/2-hour classes, which were held Tuesday and Thursday evenings, were a mix of discussions and short exercises designed to foster creative thinking and spark debate. The program cost $800 to attend, and Solomon hopes to offer it every summer or possibly at a local high school for course credit.
One day, Solomon had the students team up in pairs to look up facts about an entrepreneur they knew little about; during a lesson on effective pitching strategies, they gave one-minute pitches on their favorite movies. Another class had them research interesting projects on crowd-funding platform Kickstarter.
"I wish more high school classes were like this," 18-year-old Edo Attah, a senior at charter school Bright Star in Inglewood, said. "It's creating a mind-set of thinking where you don't have to fall into the workforce."
During Thursday's demo day, the five-member panel listened closely as the students presented their ideas for mobile apps and consumer products such as a smartphone case built with a high-quality speaker.
After several panelists peppered one team with questions, panelist Mark Kapczynski, an executive at Experian Consumer Direct, turned to the fellow mentors and said, "You guys are tough!"
"This isn't junior high, it's high school," panelist Mark Shedletsky, an entrepreneur and investor, retorted good-naturedly. "It's real life."