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Educator Spotlight: Meet Erik Nelson

Erik Nelson teaches at Camino Nuevo Charter School in downtown Los Angeles. This is his fifth year at Camino Nuevo and his first year teaching Youth Entrepreneurs. “YE is a wonderful program, and it’s exactly what I wish I had when I was in high school,” Erik says. “Every student comes to the class with different experiences and interests, and I try to help students realize that they can make the world a better place and, at the same time, be better off as a result.” Meet Erik Nelson. 

His YE connection: As a student at the University of Southern California, Erik studied both Spanish and Business Administration with an emphasis in Entrepreneurship. He began his education career through Teach for America, and has taught at Camino Nuevo ever since, mostly teaching math classes. When an assistant principal approached him about teaching YE, he eagerly said yes. “The assistant principal knew about my background in business and entrepreneurship, and it was a great match. It was serendipity, and it’s really fun for me to teach what I studied in college.”

Most memorable mindset shift moment: Erik has a student who had wanted to start his own clothing company, even long before he enrolled in Youth Entrepreneurs. “He has all these sketchbooks filled with bomber jackets, sweatshirts, and more. In class, he learned the intricacies of what it will take to get his company up and running. He’s going to the downtown Fashion District to buy fabric, and he knows, if this is how much the fabric costs, and this is how much time it takes to create, this is how much the garment should cost. You should see him in YE — his eyes just light up! He’s even been wearing his garments. He’s a wonderful student. It’s what every teacher hopes to see: that what happens inside these four walls impacts what happens outside these four walls. That’s the best kind of ‘aha moment.’”

Shark Tank in the Youth Entrepreneurs classroom: Erik begins every week with a foundational lesson about the concept the class will tackle that week. “Then as the week continues, I like to introduce those concepts through Shark Tank examples. I’ve been able to take an episode of Shark Tank and lead students through an activity to connect concepts to the pitches. How did this entrepreneur go about addressing the competitiveness of the market? Who is the ideal demographic for the product? Every week we review a few pitches. These are real life businesses and we have a special opportunity to critique what they are doing using the YE lessons.”

How he defines “entrepreneur” for his students: “I love the YE mantra of solving problems for a profit,” Erik says. “ At the same time, I’m of the mindset that students are capable of defining entrepreneurship in their own terms.” Erik points to a project his students did at the start of the semester. “Students picked someone who they thought was an entrepreneur and pitched to the group why that person can be considered an entrepreneur. Some people picked celebrities, some people picked Silicon Valley professionals, one student picked a designer. But they all were able to articulate why that person is an entrepreneur, and why they admired them.” 

Youth Entrepreneurs equips students to overcome obstacles. A great obstacle Erik overcame: Erik thinks back to his time as a college student and the hard work it took to pay for his education and keep student debt to a minimum. “When I was in college, my biggest ‘aha moment’ was that I would have to pay for all of it myself. My drive and determination were reasons I could take on many roles in college and not rely so much on debt and loans. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!” he says. “I was fortunate enough to have a scholarship for my tuition, but I still have to cover my housing and all my other expenses. I saved up from some high school jobs, I was an RA (which offered free room and board), I worked as a USC fundraising caller, I worked as a tour guide . . . I had a lot going on!” Erik only had to take on one small loan, and he was able to pay it off shortly after graduation.

If his students remember just one lesson from YE, it’s this: “One thing I hope students take away from Youth Entrepreneurs is that if something isn’t working, don’t give up. We can pivot. Lots of people will be met with an obstacle and will give up, but I want students to have this growth mindset. It’s an opportunity to change the way you approach the problem.” 

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