A Valentine to Entrepreneurship

  • David Hoffman

    Entrepreneurship is not a foreign concept to children. Whether it is earning a little spending money through the creation of a lemonade stand, neighborhood lawn mowing service or washing a family car, kids flawlessly devise and execute business plans that, with little risk, minimal financing and, let’s face it, nominal effort, bring in pocket change that hardly ever makes it to a pocket. It is usually squandered on candy, comic books or the like. In the entrepreneurial spirit, children are also good at securing allowance increases or store purchases through tactful parental negotiations and quid pro quo contractual connivances (also known during my childhood as pouting and presenting symbolic valentines promising endless love in return for the latest in-thing).

    Speaking of valentines, one of my own early-in-life entrepreneurial endeavors occurred during a fifth grade Valentine’s Day party.  My classmates and I were always devising ways of making some pocket change under the desk and teacher’s stare. Billy Barger, working as a middleman for his dad, sold collapsible yardsticks for a couple bucks. Dawn Kozack peeled promotional NFL team stickers off Chiquita bananas in the grocery store and resold them for a quarter each. When a local gas station handed out Zodiak pendants with each tank of gas (it was the Age of Aquarius, after all), someone in my class collected and sold them making a healthy profit. I still have my complete set!

    As Valentine’s Day approached, a few of us devised ways to accumulate more than cards and candy hearts. Our holiday party offered the perfect opportunity to place crafted contraband in tin foil covered shoeboxes in exchange for a little dough inside a doily adorned card. This wasn’t racketeering; it was simply students practicing their math, marketing, and chemistry skills (more to follow) in return for monetary recognition.

    The hot contraband around town in the cold winter of 1969 was cinnamon toothpicks.  Drugstores sold small wax paper packages of these tongue tantalizers for about two bits. We clandestinely bartered lunch money for a few spiced sticks and covertly sucked the cinnamon oil from them, numbing our taste buds and heightening our cerebral sinews. My business partners and I schemed to concoct our own brand of cinnamon toothpicks, attach a price point cheaper than retail, market them and then make deliveries during the Valentine’s Day party.  Dennis Wright agreed to set up our laboratory in his basement, Steve Rife convinced his older sister to purchase a small vile of concentrated cinnamon oil into which we would dip the toothpicks, and I offered to create envelopes out of waxed paper in return for a share of the profit.  We would advertise, take orders, and wait to become millionaires. 

    As with the majority of children’s best laid plans, this one went south quickly. My friends backed out leaving a classroom with high demand and no supply. Un-prepared to squander an opportunity to earn the title of cinnamon toothpick salesman of the year, I promptly promised the class that the coveted confections would still be delivered at the party—cash on delivery.  Orders poured in.

    I created a laboratory in my kitchen complete with beakers (drinking glasses) pincers (hotdog tongs) and a balance (my mom’s Weight Watcher food scale). I scrounged up a few boxes of toothpicks from a pantry drawer. I spread pages from the Omaha World Herald across the kitchen table to protect the Formica and to soak up the excess cinnamon oil from the soon-to-be-drenched toothpicks. Then, I found a bottle of Crisco vegetable oil from the pantry. I rummaged through my mom’s spice rack and found the powder that coated our buttered toast every morning. Next, I poured a cup or so of the vegetable oil into a glass and dumped the cinnamon into the oil. I dipped the toothpicks into the cinnamon crusted oil. Finally, I waited for them to dry and placed a few of them in the small envelopes I had crafted from waxed paper and staples. 

    Voila! Fiery, tongue-tingling cinnamon toothpicks.

    (I would like to say that my chemistry prowess was cemented by the age of 10, but no amount of toy chemistry sets and cake batter mixing had prepared me to create essence of cinnamon oil.)

    Come Valentine’s Day, with my young heart overflowing with love and generosity, I decided to share my spicy sticks, free of charge, with friends. In reality, I had acquired cold feet about collecting cash and, always more of a politician than businessman; I decided my act of altruism would reap reciprocal acts of kindness well into the future. That was probably the smartest thing I did during this entrepreneurial endeavor as I soon ascertained through my classmates yechs and gags, that toothpicks dipped in cinnamon and rancid vegetable oil elicit taste bud sensations that scream “deep fried” not “fiery heat.”

    Luckily, in the Mercer Island School District, we work hard to encourage and nurture a different type of entrepreneurialism.  Under Fundamental 4 of school board policy 2020, we seek to:

    Encourage and enable students to be academic entrepreneurs and risk-takers who can choose to pursue academic passions and interests beyond traditional curriculum and beyond the traditional classroom environment.

    The following phrases, embedded in the fundamental, are further defined under the superintendent’s interpretation:

    academic entrepreneurs and risk-takers:

    Students who take ownership of their learning in an environment of high expectations are self-directed and intrinsically motivated. Entrepreneurs and risk-takers are critical thinkers who understand nuanced ideas and create meaning for themselves, understanding that set-backs are stepping stones for future success is a lesson that learned early is also learned well.

    academic passions and interests:

    We build upon curiosity, passion and knowledge as intrinsic drivers that motivate learning. Personal autonomy allows students to discover passions and interests and test their limits.

    beyond traditional classroom and classroom environment:

    Experiential learning and the use of personal technology tools, used both in and out of the ‘schoolroom environment,’ provide students with alternative-learning environments, rich in context. Thin-walled classrooms, utilizing technology tools or mentors, encourage students to reach out to the teachers they need in addition to the teachers they’re assigned. Students develop an emerging sense of themselves as global citizens.

    Throughout the district, students express academic entrepreneurship and risk-taking in numerous ways, including when they:

    ·      Practice business concepts through marketplace activities

    ·      Problem solve community issues through volunteerism, service projects and food/clothes drives

    ·      Participate in before and after school clubs

    ·      Showcase their talents in musicals, concerts and art showcases

    ·      Pursue scientific inquiry during science fairs

    ·      Promote school-wide initiatives and ideas through student representative councils

    ·      Engage in student-choice projects that utilize technology and outside resources

    ·      Risk raising their hands during discussion to offer personal observations, reflections or respectful differences of opinion.


    As we move toward Valentine’s Day and beyond, the best, heartfelt gift we can give to our children is the confidence and loving support to take reasonable risks, appreciate the opportunities that emerge from mistakes, persevere in endeavors, remain curious, and act in ways that create and heal.  Then, through their academic entrepreneurship, they will bring change to the world that tantalizes like authentic cinnamon toothpicks. 


    Happy Valentine’s Day. 


    David Hoffman