Manchester 8th graders build successful businesses in entrepreneurship class

Each semester, eighth graders in Manchester Community Schools write business plans, do market research, run real businesses, and make real profits as part of their classwork.
Each semester, eighth graders in Manchester Community Schools write business plans, do market research, run real businesses, and make real profits as part of their classwork. From market research to corporate buyouts, pupils at Manchester Junior and Senior High School are learning business concepts hands-on through a course called Entrepreneurial STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). 

The course, taught by Joe Walsh, has been running for eight years now. The class starts with ideation, when students brainstorm what kind of business they'd like to run. Ideas so far have included T-shirt, soap, and candle companies. 

"They each need to find their niche," Walsh says. 

When the semester is over, pupils can choose to cash out their share of the profit. However, many of the youth have decided to keep running and investing in their businesses, incorporated as LLCs. Walsh partners with Edward Jones for personal finance curriculum. Students continue sharing their companies' profits with their classmates on the basis of who puts in the most hours on the business, Walsh says. He adds that many of his former students are well on their way to financing their college costs through their businesses.
Doug CoombeManchester Entrepreneurial STEM teacher Joe Walsh.
"The longest-running business is candles. They started in eighth grade and just graduated this year," Walsh says. "The most successful class is the juniors. They actually bought out another business."

Those juniors, now rising seniors, are running a screen printing and engraving business, which Walsh estimates has a net worth of $100,000.

The current crop of eighth-graders have been running a successful business called Sub Zero Sweets, which sells light and puffy freeze-dried candies. Walsh says one class took almost two weeks to decide on a product, but the class that runs Sub Zero Sweets knew what they wanted to do within the first two days of class. To sell the candies, the class bought some used vending machines that they maintain, stock, and gather profits from.

"Freeze-dried candy is huge right now, and so they stock the machines with the candy they're making," Walsh says.
Doug CoombeManchester Entrepreneurial STEM student Annalies Walsh selling merchandise at Waterloo Hunt Club in Grass Lake.
Students are learning about business concepts like user research, including finding out what actually sells versus what people say they want. 

Opening a class in mid-May, Walsh told his students that, although staff frequenting a certain vending machine claimed to want healthy items like trail mix, none of the trail mix had sold. Chocolate and chips, on the other hand, were selling briskly. 

"Nobody goes to a vending machine for healthy things," Walsh says. "You like the idea of a healthy snack, but you go to a vending machine because you're thinking about being naughty that day."

Students decided to take out the trail mix to make more room for chips and chocolate in the staff's machine.
Doug CoombeJoe Walsh selling Manchester Entrepreneurial STEM merchandise at Waterloo Hunt Club in Grass Lake.
Sub Zero Sweets CEO Gavin Horky, 14, says his company's business model relies on freeze-drying proven favorites like Laffy Taffy, with an occasional wild card thrown in.

"When we're freeze-drying, we do three candy products we know every time, ones that will puff up and work really well," Horky says. "And then we do an experimental product to see if it'll be good for future sales."

The business recently experimented with freeze-drying soft caramels. Horky says he's excited to see how they sell at the weekly farmers market in Manchester, where the class often vends.

"They turned out really well," Horky says. "Some candies condense or become hard. But these puffed up and should be really nice to eat."
Doug CoombeJoe Walsh and Annalies Walsh with a laser engraver in the Manchester Entrepreneurial STEM trailer.
Sub Zero Sweets CFO Emma Brinaman, 13, isn't too proud to get her hands dirty working the freeze-drying machine, though she says CFOs generally "handle the money and do the accounting."

She says the project has opened her eyes. For instance, Walsh estimates the business' freeze dryer cost $2,500, and even a used vending machine can cost $800 or more.

"The cost of running a business was surprising to me," Brinaman says.

Walsh says that, because of this course, he knows thousands of "kids with stock portfolios by the time they're 15."

"I haven't done this year's numbers yet, but since it started, this program has paid out over $87,000 to our kids," Walsh says. "I know one 12-year-old who has almost $15,000 put away, which is awesome."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at

All photos by Doug Coombe.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.