Flanked by the company's chief operating officer and chief management officer, the two co-chief executive officers called the meeting to order. They reminded their vice presidents and employees what still needed to get done before their big fundraising gala next weekend.
Picturing a boardroom full of adults in suits? Think again. This meeting was held by Gunn High School students sitting at desks in a math classroom over brown bags and Tupperware at lunch one recent Friday afternoon.
The students are members of GunnBrand4U, a new campus club that connects students with outside organizations to get real-life business and marketing experience.
The club started off small this year, meeting weekly at lunch on Fridays and sending its students to work with a local nonprofit to learn about things like balancing budgets, organizing fundraisers, recruiting volunteers, staffing and social media outreach. (In certain areas, like social media, the students served more of a consulting role.)
But Cristina Florea, the teacher who created the club, plans to turn GunnBrand4U into something much bigger: Gunn's first-ever Business, Entrepreneurship and Math (BEAM) program, a mainstream class at Gunn that offers students real-life applications of mathematics through internships with local businesses and nonprofits. It would fulfill the so-called A-G requirements -- coursework that prepares students for enrollment at University of California schools.
Through a partnership with the City of Palo Alto and Silicon Valley Talent Partnership, a San Jose-based organization that connects private-sector volunteers and civic agencies, BEAM is not so far off. GunnBrand4U will transition into an after-school club in the next school year and then become a class within the math department the year after that.
Florea, who's taught at Gunn since 2006 and has a background in math and marketing, has always wanted to develop something for her students that combined those two disciplines. In 2013, she attended a multi-day seminar in San Francisco hosted by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for educators who want to deepen their ability to teach business and finance. When she returned, she "dipped her toe in the water," asking her students if they might be interested in a business class or club.
"I was bombarded with emails from students and from parents, (asking) 'Why haven't we been doing this?'" she said. (Gunn does have two other business clubs -- Future Business Leaders of America and DECA -- but they are geared more toward competitions.)
So Florea, the club's board chairwoman, took applications for chief executives and other members. She reached out to the executive of Deborah's Palm, a women's services nonprofit in downtown Palo Alto, to see if she would be interested in serving as the club's guinea-pig partner.
Students became part of marketing, finance and operations groups, spending the year learning about each through Deborah's Palm. They initially met with executive director Katie Ritchey to identify areas where she thought her organization needed help and drilled down into smaller-scale projects the students would complete throughout the year. The management team improved search-engine optimization through writing blog posts about the club's own work and offered expert insight into what social-media platforms to focus on. The operations team assessed Deborah's Palm current practices for volunteer outreach and recruitment and helped refine the nonprofit's volunteer forms. Finance did some research on potentially renting out or repurposing two rooms in its building that weren't being used.
And the entire club participated in the planning of a black-tie fundraising gala, from developing a budget and securing a location to finding auction items, planning décor and creating a branding logo for the event ("Her story: Celebrating each woman's journey"). About 100 people attended the gala last weekend at the Mitchell Park Community Center, and the students will be meeting with Ritchey soon to go over receipts and ticket profits to create a final budget. This is, of course, all voluntary and on top of the students' regular workload and outside-of-school commitments.
"Math has not always been my favorite subject and I've always thought it's really important to find the application in it," club co-CEO and junior Hayley Krolik said. "That's what makes it really interesting for me -- going out into the world and using the skills you learn at school."
Co-CEO Jordana Siegel said it didn't feel like a typical high school experience in which the students are expected to be the ones learning from the adults.
"It was much more of a partnership and a give-and-take where she would give us advice and we would give advice ... it was very much an exchange," Siegel said. "It's this real-world experience that we rarely get where adults take us seriously and treat us as equals."
These kind of exchanges will be further enhanced next year. The City of Palo Alto will be bringing in more local small businesses and nonprofits to participate, so the club's approximately 40 students can choose one that aligns with their interests (and aren't competing for work with only one small organization). And Silicon Valley Talent Partnership connected Florea with several big-name private sector firms -- Price Waterhouse Cooper, Hewlett-Packard Co., Ernst and Young, SAP and Palantir, to name a few -- that will provide mentors to the students. The students will learn business math concepts from the firms, and then apply that knowledge through their work at the nonprofits.
Next year will still be another pilot year, while Florea works out any kinks with the new partnerships and applies for A-G course approval for the class. Some of BEAM's course objectives include: create a business plan for a small business; calculate and analyze financial ratios and growth rates for a company and compare it to a competitor; use data to determine appropriate marketing for a company; and analyze the cultural aspects of marketing.
Florea said other high schools offer business classes with grades, tests and quizzes and real-world application limited to projects. BEAM is, in essence, an internship program. Instead of grades, students will be reviewed by their nonprofits and private-sector firms, just like employees in any real-world business. The culminating project will be a presentation to the small business or nonprofit on how the students think they should proceed to grow and find success.
The club is also ripe for making the kinds of connections that support teen well-being: with a caring adult in the community, with other students, with a teacher outside of the classroom, and with a company for a future internship or job. It also teaches students self-advocacy, self-confidence and community engagement "in a unique way," Krolik said.
"The adults have taught us so much, but at the same time, it's becoming confident in myself and realizing that I have the capabilities as well," she added. "A nonprofit is literally learning from a group of high schoolers. That's really important."