How “Shark Tank for kids” survived the pandemic

Back in 2017, my colleagues and I at the Orange County Library System were brainstorming new community engagement ideas to support our children’s programming. That summer, the TV show Shark Tank was massively popular in our area—and not just with adults. We already had our “BizKids Camps” programming over the summer, and a staff member suggested we go an extra step and add a real, live business fair.

So, that’s exactly what we did. Our Orlando Children’s Business Fair offers students a platform to launch their businesses, promote their services or products, and build marketing strategies. The fair was very successful for three years running, until COVID-19 hit. While we could not produce a live fair in 2020, that didn’t stop us from continuing to build momentum by creating a new virtual experience to encourage youth entrepreneurship.

Start with a bigger picture in mind

bizfairLike so many successful community engagement efforts, the fair wasn’t a one-off event. It was connected to many other activities, including our ongoing BizKids program. So, as we were forced to make hard decisions with changing needs and COVID restrictions in mind, we took a step back to look at our efforts within their original context.

Our challenge wasn’t unique—every library worker I know is trying to find the right approach. What helped us, though, was evaluating how the tools we use to develop all our classes and programs came into play.

  1. Multipurpose programs are more flexible

Our staff is encouraged to design children’s content that involves the entire family. Before COVID, that was a benefit in terms of improved community involvement and cross-selling to parents. So, while we couldn’t do the in-person business fair with the kids, other aspects of the BizKids program that included parents and partners still made sense. It also meant that we had interested, committed adults, beyond library staff, who could work with us to make the program successful.

  1. Social learning needs to be intentional

bizfairThe Orange County Library System has been doing online classes since 2007, so the technology and processes necessary for doing virtual content were in no way new to us. And for many of those classes, there is usually a “real life” component, too. Library workers often recommend courses to customers, help get new users set up, provide technical assistance, or connect people to additional resources. Just because a class is online doesn’t mean that all the learning happens on a screen!

During the pandemic, we’ve found that being intentional about this aspect of our programs has been incredibly important. In addition to the instructional content, we planned for virtual social interaction using the break-out features in Zoom and other social “pauses.” Retention and engagement went way up when we added these elements. And these opportunities for connection were especially vital during times when children had been quarantined and not able to attend in-person classes.

  1. Focus on goals, not specific activities

Of course, I was disappointed that we couldn’t do the actual, live business fair. In years past, I went home broke after buying t-shirts and tacos and homemade jewelry from our young entrepreneurs. And we plan to bring all of that back when it’s safe. But the goal of the program wasn’t to feed me. It was to feed our kids’ sense of accomplishment after providing some of the basics of business education. And that can all be done virtually.

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This year, we hit those goals by having our BizKids do a final, online performance, complete with a PowerPoint presentation. There was a small audience so that the kids could show off their innovations and all the knowledge they’d learned. One young man pitched his plant nursery business, which included a variety of plants, trees, and shrubs grown in his family’s garden, and even included a virtual tour. He really knew his stuff about the nutrients and values of each fruit and plant. At one point, he was pushing the avocado trees and when asked why, he said (without irony), “Oh, they’re dying. So, we have to move them all soon.” It was both funny and sweet, and exactly the kind of moment we experience again and again during these events.

We finish how we started—by listening

Just like with Shark Tank, our library is now evaluating which programs will “make the cut” going forward. And we’re doing that the same way we did before the pandemic—by listening to our community. What we have now, though, is lots of new information about how well some programs can make the transition to virtual learning, how much more we can do online, and how many more staff members are able to flex between live and digital roles. So, while the changes and challenges of COVID have been a strain, we hope to take what we’ve learned and apply it moving forward in new and exciting ways.

Orange County Library System was one of three winners of an OCLC Community Engagement Award in 2020. Read more about their winning “Children’s Business Fair” program and watch a video from the OCLC Award winners here.

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