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Empowering the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs: A Conversation with Dr. Sonia Toledo

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• January 22, 2024

At Infinite Campus, we love talking to educators and customers across the nation to learn what initiatives are making the biggest impact on students’ lives. Following these conversations, we always walk away energized by what we hear.

During an episode of the Transforming K12 Education®, An Infinite Campus Podcast, we got to learn about a fascinating youth entrepreneurship program started in New York City by Dr. Sonia Toledo, founder of Dignity of Children, an organization that works to empower children and reach them from the inside out.

Hear how her program helps students tap into their personal passions through social entrepreneurship. Could it be a program your district has interest in…

Dr. Toledo founded Dignity of Children in 2008 after learning that many New York City after-school and summer programs didn’t have a place to send staff for basic training. “Every person who works with groups of children needs some basic fundamentals. I started Dignity of Children with that concept in mind – thinking about creating environments where children are fully self-expressed and safe so they can thrive.”

Over the years, the programming offered by Dignity of Children expanded.

In 2019, Dr. Toledo added a program on social entrepreneurship. As part of the curriculum, a new competition was created where high school students develop and design a new business based on a topic of their choosing, often a global issue. Two popular categories: mental health and climate change. Their only participation requirement is that the student has an internal desire to make a difference.

“To start, we ask them to look at various issues in their neighborhoods or communities. After, they’ll do data analysis, interview experts, observe environments, and research history. They then come up with not only a problem statement, but a solution that’ll be turned into a business, service, or prototype.”

Twelve weeks after their projects begin, the students present their pitch deck to a panel of judges comprised of different corporate and business professionals. Six winners receive a monetary reward to be used towards pushing the business forward. They also gain the assistance of a mentor.

Following an additional four to six months of work, the individuals/groups participate in a showcase where experts from a variety of fields provide more feedback on where the business could go in the future.

“They build character and learn how to be organized. They learn social emotional skills. They learn how to communicate with any and everyone because they have to speak to experts and professionals. The students themselves are transforming over time.”

During the inaugural competition, one girl and her team created a mental health kit with the aim of aiding individuals within the African American community in Harlem who might find value in support as they navigate their journey towards learning self-care. The kit included a candle, journal, socks, information on how to find support, and additional resources on ways to care for their mental well-being.

In another competition iteration, a duo created solar-powered backpacks that would allow people to work wherever they wanted – the  solar panel charging equipment along the way. Dr. Toledo said the energy conserving prototype was just the start and the potential for future products is endless.

For many, projects birthed from this program are continuing to grow and thrive. The work isn’t stopping even though the main program is over.

“I want students to walk away with having self-drive, the mindset of ‘I get to choose what I want to learn.’ The biggest takeaway, I want them to understand they are the change makers of the future.”

To hear more from Peter’s conversation with Dr. Toledo, visit the Transforming K12 Education®, An Infinite Campus Podcast on Spotify.

SONIA M. TOLEDO, PhD, founded Dignity of Children® in 2008 to develop children and youth holistically and reduce education inequality. She has a PhD in education and 25-plus years of experience building quality after-school programs. She focuses on emotional intelligence training, youth development, and organizational culture change. Dignity of Children® serves after-school programs nationally, providing exceptional child and youth development training programs.