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Two La Cañada fathers have created an after-school program that teaches kids the ins and outs of entrepreneurship

To teach young students the intrinsic values of entrepreneurship — developing a product and business plan, bringing it to the market and responding to real-world challenges along the way — two Paradise Canyon Elementary School dads have created School-X, an after-school club.

Eric Lin, founder of a digital platform and mobile app development company, and marketing strategist Zach Jennings got to know each other when their children attended kindergarten together. Pretty soon, talk turned to work and their shared interest in bringing ideas to life and putting them before a living, breathing marketplace.

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"It started off as a 'Wouldn't it be cool?' conversation and evolved from there," Jennings said.

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The pair formed the nonprofit School-X and developed a curriculum for students in grades 2 through 12. Participants learn about entrepreneurship and its key components by creating a product, pitching it before fellow students and then marketing and selling it in a public space — in this case, the Montrose Farmers' Market.

After a successful summer pilot program, Paradise Canyon Principal Debra Cradduck allowed Lin and Jennings to officially start the club this school year. So far, School-X is off to a promising start with extracurricular programs at all three La Cañada Unified elementary schools, as well as the nonprofit's Foothill Boulevard headquarters.

"[Entrepreneurship] is an essential skill for the 21st century," Lin said. "The people who will thrive will have to be leaders and out-of-the-box thinkers. We're creating a platform for them to experience the full life cycle of entrepreneurship."

On Friday, School-X students will have a chance to put what they've learned to the test when they compete at an Inter-school Pitch Competition. There, young entrepreneurs will go head to head with their best products and ideas before a panel of judges, who will score them on the soundness of idea and business model, delivery, relatability and whether the product being pitched addresses an important problem.

The top three winners in the contest, styled after the popular TV product pitch show "Shark Tank," will take home cash awards of $100, $50 and $20. Then, on Dec. 11, the students will sell their products and business ideas to the wider public at the Montrose Farmers' Market.

In a recent after-school meeting, students learned about teamwork and task delegation by building a structure out of raw spaghetti and marshmallows. Samuel Street, one of six students selected from among Paradise Canyon's Young Artisan program to take the stage at tomorrow's pitch competition, practiced his spiel for "The Paco," an intriguing marriage of pizza and tacos.

"You need it because it's a pizza and a taco," he reasoned for classmates. "It's special because I made it myself."

Jessica Cushman, mother of Paradise Canyon second-grader Tessa Schulz, said she was thrilled to learn about a new club that aimed to introduce the fundamentals of entrepreneurship to young students and give them a shot at developing and bringing to market their own ideas and creations.

"They started this and I was like, 'Are you kidding?'" recalled Cushman, who herself renovates homes for a living. "It's a business school for kids. They come up with ideas and they make pitches. I love it."

On Monday, Schulz practiced pitching "Stuffies and Scarves," a program that cleans up and repairs donated stuffed animals for resale and allows patrons to purchase hand-knitted leashes and scarves for new or existing "pets."

"When I was adopting my two puppies at the Pasadena Humane Society, I saw all the whimpering and hurt animals and wanted to do something," the 7-year-old said, explaining how the money raised benefits the Humane Society. "These stuffed animals are 100% guaranteed stuffed with love."

Lin and Jennings say the plan is to get young entrepreneurs to engage with School-X over several years, to the point where they can crowd-fund and possibly sell a real, viable business by the time they're in high school.

"The goal is not for a kid to make 100 bucks at the Farmers' Market," Jennings said. "The real takeaway for kids at School-X is that they go through the process of coming up with their own ideas and realize that idea by talking with others."

The School-X Inter-school Pitch Competition takes place Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. at La Cañada Elementary School, 4540 Encinas Drive., La Cañada. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit school-x.org.

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Sara Cardine, sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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