Director of Programs Nick Honegger instructs during VentureLab's Gamer course. Courtesy photo.
Director of Programs Nick Honegger instructs during VentureLab's Gamer course. Courtesy photo.

VentureLab, a San Antonio nonprofit that has taught courses to entrepreneurs aged 5-18 for more than two years, is seeking volunteers to help teach students about the applied sciences and creative problem-solving needed to start their own businesses.

Visitors who stop by their Southtown locations right off South Presa tend to hear laughter and the occasional beep of a 3D printer as they look at the bright windows used as whiteboards. Every nook and cranny of VentureLab demonstrates innovation and authenticity, creating an ideal environment for their lessons. Volunteers fit in that environment with their explicit purpose being to cultivate creativity by directly engaging the students.

“Volunteering isn’t cleaning up after the students, but rather leading the students in their group about how to think through the activities. There is a lead instructor, but each volunteer is hands on in influencing kids through the process,”  said Nick Honegger, co-founder and director of programs at VentureLab (top photo).

Last summer, I helped VentureLab craft a curriculum for a new course: Urban Farmer. Since their constant emphasis is experiential learning, every lesson was intended to give each student the opportunity to create something from germinating seeds to designing farms. While I was instructing, it quickly became clear that volunteers are a huge component of the nonprofit.

At each table, volunteers sit to brainstorm with students, pushing them towards solving the problem at hand with creativity. The experience of each individual student is too independent for any single instructor to effectively teach the real lessons at VentureLab. So, while the instructor tells students about their tools and the targeted industry, it’s the job of the volunteers to cultivate the ideas that students could eventually turn into businesses.

Everywhere at VentureLab, people are donating their time to give students tools to change their world. At Urban Farmer, guest speakers who work in irrigation, composting, aquaponics, and farmers markets all came in to show the kids some of what is possible in agriculture. Then they began work creating their own farm.

By the end of every course, students have used technology to create something. At Maker camp, they print out a 3D design that they designed themselves. At Musicpreneur, they compose an entire track on the computer. At Gamer, they make their own video game. At Urban Farmer, they planned their own farm and customers.

: VentureLab director of volunteers Cassie Robinson instructs students at Youth Startup. Courtesy photo.
VentureLab director of volunteers Cassie Robinson instructs students at Youth Startup. Courtesy photo.

Volunteers are a key part of this process because of the organization’s decision to be a nonprofit rather than a for-profit company.

“At some point, we can’t have programs without volunteers because we’re a 501(c)(3). The programs won’t occur if there aren’t volunteers to support the staff,” Honegger said.

Some of VentureLab’s funding is tied to student-instructor ratios, which means that if there aren’t enough adults in the room working together, some classes will get smaller.

“We rely on volunteers to make sure that we have a cost-effective way for letting in as many kids, especially those on scholarships, as possible,” said Director of Volunteers Cassie Robinson.

So far this year, few volunteers have signed up for summer courses, leaving many of them in the balance. VentureLab is looking for volunteers for a single week or the whole summer, with a preference for those with any relevant experience. At the delicate beginning stages of this entrepreneurship model, volunteers could help build the nonprofit up.

If VentureLab succeeds in breaking into the broader educational arena, the impact could be huge.

“Our ultimate goal is that 75% of all students will have taken one of our programs by the time they are finished with school,” Honegger said.

To reach that goal, their curriculum would ultimately have to be integrated with more conventional schools.

“For now, though, a one-week course can show students if entrepreneurship is their career outlet. We don’t think that it’s the best option for every student, but they have to discover entrepreneurship and make that decision for themselves rather than having it forced on them from a lack of opportunity,” he said.

Applied education with new technologies at camps like VentureLab may be the best way to create a generation that sees technology as a tool to change things rather than just a source of entertainment.

Honegger says volunteers often request letters of recommendation afterwards, and some have even been known to return as paid teachers. Other volunteers go on to work directly in education or join startups. While the volunteers teach the students, it is impossible not to simultaneously teach themselves.

Nicole Garbarino volunteered last year. “Working in a small business environment allows you to take on many challenges at once,” she said. “One day I was taking pictures and posting to social media, the next I was learning to use Salesforce, and other times I was right in the middle of the action teaching the kids. No matter what I was doing, the skills I was learning were clearly going to be useful in the future.”

Volunteer Nicole Garbarino directly engaged the students during her first summer with VentureLab. Courtesy photo.
Volunteer Nicole Garbarino directly engaged the students during her first summer with VentureLab. Courtesy photo.

Here is VentureLab’s summer course schedule:

Maker – June 15-19

Gamer – June 29-03, July 13-17, July 27-31

Urbanpreneur – July 6

Girls Startup – June 08-12, July 20-24

Youth Startup – June 22-26, August 10-14

Musicpreneur – March 07

High School Startup – June 08-26

Classes run from Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. They’re all for kids aged 5-13, except for High School Startup which is for high school students.

 Volunteers can be as young as 16 (except for High School Startup), and they’re looking for up to 30 new faces to bring onto the team.

Inquiries about volunteering can be done here, and applications are reviewed quickly. The nonprofit pairs up well with broader education efforts in the city like Pre-K for SA.

“VentureLab is an incubator for innovative educational techniques. It’s what we think San Antonio needs,” said Volunteer Director Cassie Robinson.

*Featured/top image: Director of Programs Nick Honegger instructs during VentureLab’s Gamer course. Courtesy photo.

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Mitch Hagney

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.