Oak Hall Partnership Leads to Innovative Future

Xavier Richardson of MusiCode Kids, shows students in the Innovation Program how to use a LaunchPad to manipulate music making.

Xavier Richardson of MusiCode Kids, shows students in the Innovation Program how to use a LaunchPad to manipulate music making.

Danny Abrahantes | NOV 6, 2018

While the market continues to expand with an ever-growing number of startups, future business leaders are being nurtured right here at home.

The Co.Accelerator at UF Innovate | The Hub found a way to work with one of Gainesville’s most prominent schools, Oak Hall School, to provide students with a means of expression, education, and—most importantly—innovation.

Under the guidance of art teachers, Terrence Ho and Robert Ponzio, the newly formed Innovation Program at Oak Hall gives students the opportunities to learn about startups in their community while fostering thought for their own business ideas.

Ho, who attended Oak Hall for high school and now works alongside his previous teachers, hopes that the program stands out from normal classes because of the creative path it takes.

“It’s not really like teaching, that’s the interesting thing about it,” Ho said. “This is more like we provide these experiences, and we let [the students] do what they want.”

Co.Accelerator utilizes the freedom of the program’s structure by occasionally having startup founders provide the students with experience and knowledge beyond normal material taught to them by the instructors. This allows students to be part of a curriculum that exposes them to important aspects of the entrepreneurial space while understanding the basics of beta testing for active startups.

With founders rotating their lectures throughout the semester, the students can be part of collaborative efforts that are both engaging and unique, providing them with educational resources that build off of each other. They are exposed to a diverse range of content, from metalworking to creating music through code. The partnership between Co.Accelerator and Oak Hall makes it possible for students to learn from entrepreneurs and gain real life skills that will help them build their own concepts.

“The hope is that they learn to think in a way that isn’t mindless,” Ho said. By facilitating new ways of understanding, the goal is for students to “work as a team without leaders.” If they are able to work with others and come together over shared problems, they eventually can be expected to branch off and fulfill their own leadership roles.

Ponzio echoes the sentiment, focusing his attention on teamwork instead of individual achievement. “Students are part of a team and the work needs to get done as a team.  There are no grades for each task,” he said. “They are very used to this reward system and they need to understand that failure is not something to be avoided, rather it is an essential part of the creative process.” 

This process has already started to develop for students like Anthony, a junior who believes what he has learned in the innovation program has improved his vision for his own startup plans.

“I’ve been learning coding, and having a lot of communication to services downtown,” Anthony said. His idea, which would help soccer coaches around the world communicate over packages filled with supplies they need, would strive to bring people together by experiencing different cultures.

Other students have reached out to Anthony with ideas to expand to other sports like volleyball, and he has discussed the elements of app development with startup founders that are familiar with the intricacies of coding. His company’s mission statement is “connecting kids through something they love.”

Sarah Boon, the initiator behind the development of the program, never thought it would have such an impact from the beginning. Starting in August, several students applied to be part of the innovation program, but only an initial six were accepted. Oak Hall hopes to expand the program as it becomes more well-established.

Boon had initially envisioned the program for her required senior project, knowing that she wanted to pursue graphic design and find a way for others to approach design without the fear of taking the first step.

“I definitely wanted to take the opportunity to explore and learn about design and design thinking, as I had limited chances to in school,” she said. “I started talking to my art teacher Mr. Ponzio about things I could pursue involving art or design. We both got excited when he started telling me about the kinds of collaborative spaces for designers and start-up companies being brought to communities like Gainesville.”

From there, Boon continued to explore her options until she came across the Co.Accelerator downtown, establishing herself as a young entrepreneur wanting to spread the word. While she originally didn’t think she would find herself spearheading a program or even being interested in the technicalities of the business world, Boon believes it has helped her going forward. As for the students involved in her creation, she can only assume the same.  

“I hope the students will get inspired while learning about design, marketing, business structure, communication, and all the other innumerable skills involved with entrepreneurship.”

While the road may not be easy, Ponzio believes that in the end, the students’ business ventures are undeniably rewarding.

“Entrepreneurism is not for the meek, rather it's for those of us who are bold enough to make our visions a reality.”