EIC entrance

To the detriment of students enrolled in the Williamson County Schools’ Entrepreneurship & Innovation Center, the shark tank was overtaken by the coronavirus.

As it did to all students across the school district, the pandemic effectively cut short the EIC after all schools closed in March and remained that way through May. The program’s director, Kari Miller, was able to help students continue with their projects via remote learning, but the grand finale — known as the shark tank — didn’t happen. 

“Finishing up remote was a challenge for the entire district, and the EIC was certainly not exempt from that,” said Adam Beck, board of directors president of the Catalyst Network, a nonprofit that serves as the fundraising arm of the EIC. “Kari and her support staff did an outstanding job getting those businesses [team projects] and those students shepherded through the rest of the school year.

“But we were unable to do the end-of-year shark tank, where we really take a deep dive into the businesses and potentially award operational grants.”

EIC first floor

The first of two floors at the EIC is plenty spacious for social distancing.

Now the program has entered its second year, with a fresh optimism for those students who are returning from last year and those who are newcomers. There have been a couple of changes, however.

Miller, former Mill Creek Middle School principal, who was hired as EIC director in December 2018, has shifted positions in the district. She is now helping with the WCS Online program, a new initiative brought about by the pandemic’s impact on public schools. Jeremy Qualls, director of the district’s College, Career & Technical Education, has at least temporarily taken over for Miller in overseeing the EIC.

The coronavirus also affected enrollment for the 2020-21 EIC. Several students who had applied for the program had to withdraw if they chose to participate in WCS Online, which has its own curriculum that doesn’t include EIC courses.

Nevertheless, enrollment did increase by 20% over last year and is now at 152 students. Like all other students in third grade through 12th, EIC students started the first couple of weeks or so in Zoom settings. They returned to campus Monday, and for the EIC, campus is a 10,000-square-foot facility with open spaces and plenty of elbow room for social distancing.

“So far it’s going really, really well,” Qualls said. “Some of these students are in their second year, so they kind of know the lay of the land and the process of what’s going on. They’re in the middle of the ideations of their businesses. First-year students are getting acclimated to what’s going on.

“Having the kids on campus and in this facility is very fulfilling for the teachers, the kids and, frankly, for all of us to be around students again. Everybody is upbeat, showing up and going through the processes of learning about building their businesses.

“You go from one [concept] that’s way out there and one that’s practical and everything in between. It’s pretty interesting to listen to the conversations.”

As students and teachers at the EIC made their way through the uncertainty of COVID-19, so did the Catalyst Network board members. But they’re back raising money, finding mentors and enlisting community support.

“From the Catalyst Network standpoint, we, out of an abundance of sensitivity, sort of pulled back on fundraising efforts while everybody sorted out which end is up,” Beck said. “But we’re restarting those efforts now, and we need the community’s help to make the EIC everything it can be.”

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