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Sowing the seeds of creativity

Seedplay CEO Harlan Gaston describes his new web site.
Seedplay creator Harlan Gaston describes his new web site, which helps students raise seed money for their projects.

Joaquin Horton, 19, who just graduated from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, credits a new online resource called Seedplay for helping him take his company to the next level.

As a student in Crenshaw’s Business Management and Entrepreneurial Academy, Horton developed a plan to make and sell craft kits for kids, called Fuzzy Stix. The kits contain multicolored pipe cleaners that can be used to create three-dimensional animals or other objects.

Horton became the poster child for Seedplay when it pilot-tested the program at Crenshaw this spring. So far, Seedplay has helped Horton raise more than $200 toward his goal of $1,828.

Seedplay, which was developed by entrepreneur Harlan Gaston and is being distributed by CORE K12 Education, provides an online platform for students to publicize projects they’re working on, including a wish list of supplies they need to accomplish their goals. Anyone who visits the Seedplay web site ( can browse among the projects and make donations to help students purchase the raw materials they need.

The site also empowers students to pursue a larger goal. “Seedplay gives kids a positive vision of themselves and of the future,” said Kevin Howell, president of CORE K12, the assessment company formerly known as The Princeton Review. “Kids drop out not only for academic reasons; they drop out because of family and economic issues and because they lack the drive and motivation. Seedplay gives them more reasons to stay in school. It allows kids to connect with their visions and dreams.”

When Gaston introduced Seedplay to Crenshaw students—he got their attention with a rap about his escape from poverty and plea for self-empowerment—many students in Crenshaw’s business academy enthusiastically embraced the concept.

Horton’s inspiration for Fuzzy Stix came from his own experience. “I never learned to draw. When I was six or seven, I started using pipe cleaners to make action figures,” he recalled. In the 10th grade, he had been planning to enroll in Crenshaw’s art academy, but his business teacher, Maynard Brown, persuaded him to choose the business academy instead.

“When he said I would be making money [in a business career], I was ready to go,” Horton said, even though the math required for accounting was a struggle. Horton acknowledges he was “never into school that much” before. But since he started working on becoming an entrepreneur, he’s become much more focused.

Horton credits Brown and Gaston with helping him get his Fuzzy Stix business up and running. Horton has been purchasing the pipe cleaners from Walmart at $1 per 100, but now he’s working on getting them for even less from a pipe cleaner factory in China. Gaston is connecting him with a professional to help create an instructional manual for Fuzzy Stix.

Horton already received $100 for winning a competition sponsored by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship and will represent Southern California in a Junior Achievement competition in Minneapolis this summer. Gaston has promised to pay for his plane ticket.

Horton plans to attend the Art Institute of Los Angeles, specializing in video game design. His long-term goal is to have his own video game company. But he’ll first take a year off to concentrate on his business, “so when I get to college, I’ll be able to concentrate on school,” he said.

Gaston has been an excellent role model for Horton and his classmates. An artist, software architect, and social entrepreneur, he grew up in the inner-city neighborhood of Watts, where he lost several friends and neighbors to gang violence. As a student at Verbum Dei High School in Watts, he became adept at fundraising. “By giving speeches to wealthy folks,” he was able to raise more than $4 million for a gym and computer lab for his school.

Gaston’s goal in high school was to attend Stanford University. His SAT scores weren’t high enough, though, so he took advantage of The Princeton Review’s offer of free tutoring to any student in Watts. Gaston was able to raise his SAT scores by 300 points and got into Stanford. At 20, he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and became the world’s youngest and first American recipient of the Reinhard Mohn Fellowship, which enabled him to spend a year consulting with the chief executives of the Bertelsmann media company.

Gaston said he came up with the idea for Seedplay after spending “the past six years doing research on K-12 education and searching for a way to transform education worldwide.” He funded his research through the sales of his motivational audio books and DVDs.

He met Howell while working with schools in Los Angeles, and CORE K12 agreed to work with Gaston’s company, Encore Omnimedia, to market Seedplay.

Crenshaw was selected to beta-test the program because of its combination of a low academic performance index and a “powerful business small learning community,” Gaston said. “Crenshaw is a diamond in the rough. If we could make it there, Seedplay can make it anywhere.” He said the school has already agreed to purchase the program for the 2010-11 school year.

Howell has seen a lot of enthusiasm for Seedplay in California and is now officially launching the program nationally. Gaston said he is getting ready to embark on “a national tour reaching over 500 schools in 100 cities starting in late August.”

So far, Horton is the only one to have his project published on the Seedplay web site. “Other students had brilliant projects,” but they aren’t ready to be published yet, Harlan said.

One project Gaston expects will be published shortly, called “tasty cakes,” was proposed by a student who makes cheesecakes. When Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz visited Crenshaw, he was so impressed with her cakes that he agreed to sell them at the local Starbucks. The student now hopes to use Seedplay to raise money for the ingredients and packaging.

Other projects in the works include the “green society” recycling initiative, “make a friend” wrist bands, and “Cougar Awards” (named for Crenshaw’s mascot), an effort to host a movie night as a reward for the academy with the highest attendance rate during testing week.

As these examples show, Seedplay projects don’t have to be about starting a business. They can be a science project, a homework assignment, or a community improvement project. “It’s for any kid with an idea who needs the resources to make it happen,” Gaston said. “And the payoff for them is they build a global fan base around their idea.”

People who visit the site not only can contribute money for students’ projects; they also can offer advice about marketing or other suggestions.

Many projects are already posted on Crenshaw’s private Seedplay network. For a project to be published on the national web site, the student who developed it must take part in an online workshop, conduct research, write a plan, and develop a budget. The project also must be tied to the curriculum and must be approved by the student’s faculty sponsor.

Potential donors can browse the proposals published on the Seedplay web site, which lists the cost of items on the students’ wish lists and the total amount of money needed to complete the project. Donors contribute funds via PayPal, and the Sparrow Fund arranges the item purchases through Amazon, which ships the supplies to the school.

Schools that join Seedplay pay a fee, based on enrollment, which covers a one-year license, the software to create and publish projects, curriculum materials, a teachers manual, on-site professional development, and 24-hour-a-day support.

In citing the benefits of Seedplay, Gaston said it encourages collaboration and teamwork and “encourages students to apply their knowledge to the real world. When youths are charged with writing a proposal to bring in resources, they understand why it is important to learn to write well.”

He said Seedplay offers “an incentive for at-risk students to stay in school, while simultaneously providing an opportunity for gifted students to apply their learning in a way that is challenging and enriching.”


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