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A Billion-Dollar Company Wants to Turn Kindergartners Into Entrepreneurs

WeWork is launching a new private elementary school, called WeGrow, that will teach students how to start their own for-profit businesses.

The $20 billion company WeWork is best known for renting sleek co-working spaces to entrepreneurs and freelancers in cities across the globe, but in the past two years it has branched out into furnished apartments (WeLive) and a gym/spa (Rise by We). These forays into other facets of daily existence fit the company's mission of conflating work and life. Rebekah Neumann, who co-founded WeWork with husband Adam Neumann, told Bloomberg that "there are no lines" between home and office in her family—that she and her husband "do what they love." Adam Neumann described his vision to Israeli newspaper Haaretz as "making a capitalist kibbutz."

WeWork's latest venture takes on another area of daily life, this time for children. The company will open a private elementary school, called WeGrow, in New York City next fall. This academic year, seven students, ages five to eight (one of whom is a child of the Neumanns), are attending a pilot program in which they spend one day at a 60-acre farm outside the city and the rest of the week in a classroom near WeWork's Manhattan headquarters.

The goal at WeGrow is to make kids into entrepreneurs. "There's no reason why children in elementary schools can't be launching their own businesses," Rebekah Neumann told Bloomberg. While the kids are expected to learn math, reading, and other traditional subjects, they also receive business lessons from WeWork employees and entrepreneur-customers. Already a child in the pilot program is making T-shirts to sell at the student farm stand, and will soon apprentice with fashion designers who rent space at WeWork.

When the school opens in 2018, likely inside WeWork's headquarters, it will enroll around 65 children from preschool through fourth grade. Tuition is as yet undecided. A WeWork representative told Fast Company that the school will start out as for-profit, but could transition to non-profit in the future. Neumann envisions WeGrow ultimately serving students through the 12th grade, and she wants to open similar schools in WeWork locations around the world so that globetrotting parents can bring their children with them and drop them at WeGrow while they labor nearby.

WeWork's mantras are seductive. Who doesn't want to "do what you love," make money at the same time, and send your children to a school that teaches them to do the same—all couched in the language of altruism? In Rebekah Neumann's words on the WeWork blog, "Through better understanding their passions and the ways they can use their gifts to help others, children will grow as self-aware, empowered, compassionate creators."

Denise Blum, an associate professor of education at Oklahoma State University, questions such messaging, calling it marketing that "veils the wolf." While WeGrow may seem like just another option in the cornucopia of for-profit and private alternatives to public education, she said, its focus on entrepreneurship socializes children to forsake the public good for the private one. "Children learn to value entitlement and profit without considering how to serve the less fortunate or questioning why poverty even exists," she said.

Miya Tokumitsu, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, has argued that the refrain of "do what you love" creates the polarity Blum describes. "Work becomes divided into two opposing classes," Tokumitsu wrote in Jacobin: that which is creative, intellectual, and prestigious (lovable), and that which is repetitive, unintellectual, and undistinguished (unlovable). "Those in the lovable work camp are vastly more privileged ... while comprising a small minority of the workforce," she wrote.

The danger, according to Tokumitsu, is that "do what you love" makes it easy for elite workers to ignore the masses of people laboring in unlovable jobs, desperate to make ends meet. If they aren't profiting from their work, it's simply that their passion and determination aren't up to par.

Teaching "do what you love" to young children, Tokumitsu told CityLab, is concerning not only because it inculcates kids to believe that their ability to perform waged work is tied up with their personal development and desires. "Entrepreneurship is a competitive enterprise," Tokumitsu said. Since would-be entrepreneurs don't start on equal footing, "teaching young children to be competitive creatures—and, moreover, that they are competing on fair terms with everyone else—is disingenuous and dangerous." (WeWork declined to comment.)

WeGrow isn't the first school to encourage entrepreneurship among young children. Schools in Austin, Chicago, and other United States cities offer specialized programs and tracks. While there are many who support such endeavors—arguing, for instance, that children must be prepared for an economy that rewards innovation—others posit that such programs encourage child labor and take the fun out of being a kid:

Blum also points out that a model in which parents travel with their children to international WeGrow locations would likely decrease the children's ability to foster a sense of belonging, make long-term friends, and learn to socialize with diverse classmates.

But for Blum, the bigger problem with WeGrow is its lack of inclusivity. "Those who have the resources to enter the 'We' world and succeed may stay insulated with their 'We' families and 'We' children," she said. "This only serves to make the gap greater between the haves and the have nots."

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.