An initiative supporting young entrepreneurs at Westlake Boys High School called Openground has provided a pathway between academic theory and learning, and the practical reality of running a business. 

Some students from this year’s inaugural Openground programme are now running their startups upon leaving school. Students successfully started their own businesses while learning essential core skills as they developed confidence in critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, teamwork, resilience and working independently.

Westlake’s former head of faculty and commerce, Keryn Russell, the director of Openground says the initiative is like the “Young Enterprise model on steroids”, but she had to work hard over six months to establish the programme.

Openground (formerly the Westlake Enterprise Academy) was launched this year for Westlake’s Year 13 students. It is an initiative of The Westlake Foundation, specifically Westlake alumni Bill Smale, who is immensely passionate about supporting young entrepreneurs.

This year’s inaugural programme had 20 students from 27 applicants, with 15 so far enrolled for 2023.

As well as core subjects, students in the fully immersive Openground programme study four university-approved subjects, including Level 3 Business Studies, the most popular subject at Westlake, behind English, Maths and Science. There is also access to some startup capital from interested investors to support businesses to get off the ground.

Not all businesses received funding, and not all boys were as passionate about other core subjects, Russell said.

Keryn Russell, director of Openground.

“One of my main jobs was to be encouraging and just pick them up – I was their guidance counsellor, their mum, and their PA.”

Three periods each day are spent working on Openground, learning about business, setting one up, as well as working towards the NCEA credits, with the rest of each day spent on other NCEA subjects. Russell said Openground students also attended seminars on business structure, intellectual property, cyber security, market validation, business planning, pitching, marketing and Xero accounting software.

“We had 28 guest speakers last year – lawyers, marketing experts, speakers on startup funding, pitching and networking. The boys were able to contact them directly if they had follow up questions.”

‘Dragons Dens’ style pitch events are held throughout the year, where businesses each have five minutes to pitch for capital so they can turn their idea into a reality. This could be as either an investment or as a loan from The Westlake Boys High School Foundation.  

In an interesting twist of fate, Openground also partnered with the Startup NZ Entrepreneurs Programme to deliver part of the Openground curriculum. Unknown to Russell at the time of engaging Startup NZ, was that the programme was developed and managed by another Westlake Boys alumni, Richard Liew.

Liew, a student at Westlake in the ‘90s, is also the founder and editor of online magazine NZ Entrepreneur, and a trustee for Startup Queenstown Lakes, a council funded trust set up to develop entrepreneurs in the Queenstown and Wanaka region where he lives. 

“My time at Westlake played a big part in developing my own interest in economics and entrepreneurship, so it’s very gratifying to be able to contribute back to the school in this very practical way,” said Liew. 

He adds that time is of the essence in entrepreneurship.

“Helping any New Zealander starting out in business is a win and it’s extra rewarding to be assisting Westlakers in their formative years because in entrepreneurship the sooner we start our learning the better.”

Leo Martins is the student founder and CEO of Kiwi Assist, a startup founded in March 2022 which aims to make navigating the internet simple for older people.  Martins offers how-to guides to help seniors get started with new things online.

“I was super stoked, it was just perfect for me – I was relieved to be accepted,” Martins says of his Openground application.  “I don’t fit well in the school system, I only wanted to do business.”

Martins may not see himself as academically gifted, but said he was “speechless” upon winning the top award at the 2022 Openground prizegiving.

He received the Premier Award for Overall Excellence, awarded to the top performing entrepreneur across multiple aspects, including the level of innovation, engagement in the course, success and future potential of the business. He also was the recipient of the Shore Junction Incubator Space for 2022, receiving office space for a year, as well as a carpark, laptop and free WIFI.

Leo Martins, student founder and CEO of Kiwi Assist delivering his pitch.

Bespoke Cycles founder Dan Davis runs a mobile bicycle repair company. He has been working very closely with his business mentor Nigel Douglas, who assisted him with setting up a pop-up servicing centre over Labour weekend where he serviced and fixed 42 bikes. At this year’s Openground prizegiving, Davis received the Westlakers Entrepreneur Recognition Award, awarded to someone who has shown dedication, determination, and resilience throughout the year.

Next year Davis, who actually started his business in 2018, aims to hire a full-time mechanic and focus full time on building his business, after creating a website a couple of months ago.  He said OpenGround was the best thing for his business, as it taught him how to run a business properly and he also had assistance in setting up his eft-pos machine.

“It was really good, we had guest speakers on accounting and marketing. It’s made my business a lot more professional.”

Another Westlake award winner was Polo Umali, founder and CEO of YourDate.

This startup removes the hassle for busy couples who never have time to arrange a date.  Umali has partnerships with several Auckland restaurants and provides a YourDate box, delivered to people’s doors that includes a reservation at one of Auckland’s top restaurants, paired with unique, fun questions to enjoy throughout the date.

YourDate box includes a reservation at one of Auckland’s top restaurants.

Umali was awarded the Westlakers Entrepreneur High Achiever award, which is given to a high performing business entrepreneur whose business has made it to market and shows potential for strong future growth.

He said Openground was useful in seeing how startups were created, and said he was taken “good care of” with mentoring and guidance throughout the year.

“It was the best decision I’ve made – it set me up for the future.”

Openground has set several up for the future. “I had a boy who burst into tears at the end of the year who said I’d changed his life,” Russell said.

“As far as I’m aware, this is the only intensive school course like this in the country and the boys have done incredibly well.”  

Russell said her students can add a lot more to their CVs that will differentiate themselves from every other teenager in the country because of what they did in Openground.

“That’s success – the life experience the boys are getting. They’ve learned business concepts that they would not have learned in a core class, and they’ve had the opportunity to network.  Every boy has grown exponentially – more so than they would have done in a normal Year 13 programme.”

Story by Dave Crampton.

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