Acorn grows tech aspirations

Edtech impact venture Acorn Aspirations encourages 12-19 year-olds to learn about business and create with code. Francesca Woodhouse is impressed by its people-and-tech approach – and by work emerging from young entrepreneurs at its recent hack weekender.

When I was at school and subsequently university, if you didn’t go to work for the civil service, a law firm, a management consultancy, an accountancy firm or a graduate scheme, you may as well have been dead.

elena sinellDestined to failure, those who dared to go it alone without the safety net of a big corporate name were considered completely barking mad. I know I am not alone in this.

Fast forward nearly 20 years and the atmosphere is completely different. The rise of entrepreneurship and the sentiment of “just have a go”, experiment and collaborate, pivot and start again, are to be celebrated. But, alongside the changes in our economy, the education system still seems anachronistic.

Children are tested rigorously from the age of six. There are various stages and options, but this still fails to embrace a variety of learners. This feeds into the university system to the detriment of those graduating with big debt and often-difficult job prospects.

Although the government is trying to change the education system, making it a “meritocracy for all” according to education secretary Justine Greening, there is a long way to go until this becomes a reality.

The government’s consultation to provide more “good school places” and promote greater diversity in learning is laudable, but still woefully out of touch in providing children and teenagers with the opportunities that will equip them for the world of work.

A growing part of the global economy is education technology. The organisations that are part of this growing economy are making an impact, using technology for change. An inspirational example is Acorn Aspirations, headed up by the ebullient Elena Sinel.

Acorn Aspirations is an award-winning social impact company. It inspires young people aged 12-19 into tech entrepreneurship. It unleashes their creative potential through hackathons, summer bootcamps and a 12-month accelerator.

As a concept, Acorn Aspirations works. It has come to the attention of big hitters in the tech world, including investors. It has been an amazing summer for the social enterprise, winning a place at Google Launchpad. It is now working with accelerator Mass Challenge to further scale the organisation.

What makes Acorn so special?

It focuses on 12-19 year-old students, both boys and girls.

It is tech agnostic – so although there is an encouragement for the students to learn how to code if they would like, no one is pushed to learn a specific language.

And it brings together teams that have never worked with one another before. There is a strong emphasis on teamwork and collaboration from the very beginning of any of the events and hackathons.

Mentors come from a variety of areas in the tech world. This gives a broad view of the industry and its endless possibilities.

The teenagers learn about planning, UX, UI, the importance of pivoting and thinking commercially, how to code, how to build compelling products and most importantly, how to articulate their ideas and pitch to some really great judges.

This month’s #AcornHackWOW hackathon – which I attended with my own six-year-old Isabella as mascot – included Alice Bentinck of Entrepreneur First, Kim Arazi of WOW Talks and Darryll Bannon at Virtually Reality. The time spent by the teenagers working to develop products is so valuable because it broadens horizons and shows the endless possibilities of what can be achieved.

Every hackathon run to date has produced some compelling products. But one especially worthy of mention is Syper. This is a company founded by Caitlin Glover to use the power of virtual reality to help dyslexic students.

Caitlin took part in the two-week Acorn Accelerator over the summer holidays and produced a working prototype. She is now in discussion with companies about how to get her product to market. She pitches her business idea with confidence, clearly and like an absolute pro.

Oh, and did I mention that Caitlin is just 12 years old?

acornaspirations-logoOnce the hackathons and events are over, the knowledge isn’t lost. Many of the teenagers go on to do work experience at various companies, receive prizes and further mentoring opportunities. A few of the businesses emerging from the events have also started on the investor trail.

The combination of people and technology is what gives Acorn its secret sauce. It has now given hundreds of students the opportunity to create something tangible in a safe environment. No-one is judged or streamed according to academic ability, but rather encouraged to be creative, to experiment, to think a little dangerously and most certainly independently.

The world of edtech and impact tech can exist well alongside standard education, and work to maximise students’ potential.

“Effectively, we are building a MassChallenge for teenagers: a global connector for teen entrepreneurs worldwide,” says Sinel. “There has never been a better time than now to connect young teenagers through tech entrepreneurship worldwide, but this will not be possible without networking opportunities and connections with the corporate world MassChallenge can offer.

“Acorn Aspirations injects creativity back into traditional education. We complement mainstream education and offer what schools are unable to offer. We are in discussions with local initiatives in the US, Israel, Berlin, Chile, Brazil, Pakistan and Afghanistan who have expressed an interest in running hackathons simultaneously with the ones we run in London.

This is an incredibly exciting time for us as we feel we are in the right position to create the impact we wish to create – empower young people to create change for themselves.”

Francesca Woodhouse is the director of Slanted Door Communications