Could the Next Steve Jobs Come From Philly?

Inside our frantic push to create the next generation of entrepreneurs, business leaders, and revolutionary minds in Philadelphia.

Photo by Jonathan Pushnik.

Photo by Jonathan Pushnik.

On a cheery, sun-filled Friday in midsummer, I’m standing inside the offices of PeopleLinx—a Center City start-up dedicated to maximizing the awesome power of LinkedIn for companies and their employees—and watching as a group of bright-eyed PeopleLinxers teach a dozen new instructees the finer points of creating a LinkedIn profile. There is, alas, one hurdle: Half the instructees can’t read. Now, before you begin bitching about the sorry state of the American educational system, I should point out that several of them are only three and four years old, an age at which you’re more likely to be flipping through Spot Goes to the Farm than devouring Tom Peters’s In Search of Excellence. Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped the PeopleLinx employees—who, yes, are these kids’ parents—from pulling out some paper and crayons and helping their offspring create their “profiles.” Oh, and business cards, too.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” one dad asks his son.

A moment of thought. “Firefighter,” the kid says. It’s duly written down.

We are midway through what amounts to PeopleLinx’s version of Take Your Kids to Work Day, an endeavor the company—which was spun off a few years ago by some ex-LinkedIn employees and recently landed $3.2 million in A-round financing—is calling Junior Entrepreneurs Bootcamp. Its purpose? Well, in addition to letting the kids see where mom and dad go every day, it’s to show them how business works and, perhaps, plant the seed that they, too, might one day be enterprising start-up dudes and dudettes.

If Mark Zuckerberg ran a Montessori program, I suspect it would look something like this. The morning began with circle time, with the kids introducing themselves, then playing a game of Simon Says that culminated with an adult leader proclaiming, “Simon says start a business!” Ice successfully broken, the kids—ranging in age from toddlers to 10-year-olds—got down to work: a start-up lemonade venture in front of the company’s Market Street office building (with proceeds going, sweetly, to Alex’s Lemonade Stand).

First up, naturally, was securing seed capital. After explaining the concept of borrowing money from the bank, one dad stood to the side of the circle with a fistful of dollars and handed them out to the kids so they could buy supplies. But he made clear he was no chump giving out charity; like any sharp angel investor, he expected a return—$1.50 for each $1 he gave out.

From there, the kids marched to the other side of the office, exchanged their dollars for supplies, then headed to the production facility—a.k.a. the office kitchenette—to mix up some lemonade. After a brief break to create those LinkedIn profiles—you can’t sell if you can’t network!—they head outside and start pushing product.

Business is slow.

So slow, in fact, that I begin to wonder if some members of lemonade-stand management, huddled a few feet away from me, might be considering a pivot—switching to chocolate chip cookies, maybe, or developing an app that aggregates where all the lemonade stands are. (Note to self: not a bad idea.) But then someone realizes it’s a simple marketing problem, and a few of the kids move further out onto the sidewalk and begin flagging down customers. Bingo! Business picks up instantly, and the dollars pour in.

I don’t stay for the whole thing, but that afternoon an email pops up in my inbox from Liz Coleman, PeopleLinx’s vice president of client engagement and one of the organizers of the day. “Thanks for coming by, Tom!” she writes. “The kids raised almost $300 this morning for Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, so we are very proud of our 1st class of Junior Entrepreneurs.”

She makes no mention of an IPO, though I suspect the future firefighter, in particular, might be looking for an exit.