Sparking Change: How Kidvation Transforms Youth Education Through Innovation

While working the front desk of a YMCA in Oklahoma City as a college student, little did Harold Lee realize he would stumble into his passion for serving youth.

“One day, the day-camp kids came in, and they were just so fired up. The staff were just so fired up and happy, and I realized that’s the type of feeling I want when I come to work. So, I became a camp counselor and that put me on my trajectory working with youth.”

Harold dedicated his career to serving teens and families, developing after school programs and summer enrichment activities. He worked his way to director of his local YMCA, yet he also felt a yearning call to develop his own nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring youth.

“Seeing the passion the youth had and the impact that I could make in a child’s life by just showing them that they can actually contribute to society as youth, that they don’t have to wait until they’re older, is really where my passion came from.”

Co-founder Brent Wheelbarger found himself in the youth education space from a very different perspective: entrepreneurship.

“About 20 years ago, I started a marketing and technology company. As we grew, we crossed paths with other entrepreneurs doing innovative things in the education sector. One nonprofit founder, Michael Hirsch, engaged with my company to help students learn 3D modeling and augmented reality. Then we did it again the next year, and nine of our students created augmented reality slap bracelets called Wristworld, ” said Brent.

“They’re in college now, but they’re still running it. They went to the New York International Toy Fair; they got a licensing deal with a Japanese company called Krypton to put their character on the bands; and now they’re doing it with universities. And so just seeing what students are capable of when they’re given the platform and the support and let them run. I mean, they’ll do amazing things.”

The success of Wristworld inspired Brent and Michael to consider what it would look like if they could build more Silicon Valley-style tech startup in Oklahoma run by middle schoolers. In mid-2022, Harold crossed paths with Michael.

“We met for coffee, and we began to dream out loud about what it would look like if we combined forces. [Brent and Michael] were already working in the youth entrepreneurship space and that’s how Kidvation was born,” Harold said.

Kidvation founders Michael Hirsch (Left) Harold Lee (Center) Brent Wheelbarger (Right)

“Harold sort of had the same vision that I really want to do something different on a larger scale with students,” said Brent. “And the idea of marrying entrepreneurship and innovation, it just kind of all fit. And so [Harold] brought that institutional knowledge of how to do youth programming. And Michael brought in this nonprofit experience. And then I come in with the entrepreneurship piece of it. And we sort of became Three Musketeers.”

Harold, Brent, and Michal incorporated Kidvation in October of 2022. Kidvation is a curriculum provider for students between the ages of eight and 15 with a focus on teaching innovation and how to apply it to real world pathways, namely youth entrepreneurship, social activism, and research and development.

“We felt that there are a lot of programs for younger elementary school students and high school students, but void exists when it comes to older elementary schoolers. So, we emphasize ages eight to 15 for our curriculum,” Harold said.

“The first group that we worked with was an independent school district, a public school in the inner city of Oklahoma City that I already had an established relationship with due to my prior work. It was a predominantly African American school district in an area with low socio-economic status. I had previously done mentorship programs at the school for at risk students, so we really wanted to target minority youth for our pilot program.”

Harold, Brent and Michael then worked on adapting their curriculum to different settings, working with local microschools, charter schools with both large and small class sizes. Kidvation is unique in that they host one of the nation’s first student-led marketplaces, so students have the opportunity to build the infrastructure to become ecommerce entrepreneurs.

“Some of these kids have never had to do public speaking or knew what PowerPoint was when they started. At the end of our curriculum, we have them create a pitch deck and a presentation for a panel of judges and entrepreneurs and people in the nonprofit sector,” Harold said.

Kidvation students present pitch deck for their app Neighborhood Explorer.

“So, for them to have to do some of these things that adults do, and just watching their growth, watching them come out of their shell, and believe in themselves has been really great to see. We witness kids start great businesses, social projects and research and while that’s great, our main goal is to help kids develop confidence, courage, and character.”

From that first curriculum in an Oklahoma public school, Kidvation programming has expanded to more than 30 schools in the state, in addition to schools in Virginia, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Michigan.

“We work with any type of learner, but we are intentional about working with minority and at-risk students, non-traditional and neuro-divergent learners, and students in rural communities because they don’t get a lot of this type of programming,” said Harold.

Kidvation also partners with international organizations in Mexico, Ivory Coast, Lesotho, Pakistan, and India to share their curriculum.

“It’s been very interesting expanding to working in other countries,” Brent said. “We’ve learned that it’s really a lot easier to partner with an organization like an NGO that already exists in that country and is already with schools than it is to go in and just try to work directly with schools. Having that intermediary has been very powerful because they already have relationships with the schools, language, culture, and connections, and they how to make things work in that country.”

Kidvation students work on a group project.

As their programming has expanded, they recently started building a fourth pillar: global collaboration. Their hope is that bringing together youth from different backgrounds, languages and cultures but with the same innovative mindset will unlock new ways to tackle problems collaboratively.

“Right now, we’re doing our curriculum with about 9 schools and over 200 indigenous students in rural parts of Mexico. And yet, they’re coming back with some of the coolest, neatest ideas that you might not see a kid from suburban of Oklahoma create because their exposure and challenges are so different,” Brent said.

“But if you have one team that has a student from Mexico, and a student from India and a student from Oklahoma, and they’re all together collaborating to do something you’re going to find innovation there because that’s where it comes from. It’s just putting different ideas together in different ways.”