updated 2/13/2012 2:27:01 PM ET 2012-02-13T19:27:01

U.S. public schools may serve up a lot of lessons to the 49 million students who roam their halls, but most don't offer entrepreneurially minded kids much help in pursuing their passions.

On a recent trip to Atlanta, I met Matt Smith, a freshman at Georgia Tech who already has two startups to his credit, and, now in beta, Smith was 13 when he realized he wanted to learn something different from what was being fed to him as "important" at school. He knew that if he ever stood a chance of learning about entrepreneurship, he was going to have to cook up an extracurricular program for himself.

A self-professed nerd, Smith was interested in technology at a very young age. Barely into his teens, he was already devouring tech-related blogs and news feeds and attending Atlanta tech conferences. The key, he says, was getting out there and meeting people. Many encouraged him, and he never got the impression that others believed he was too young to be taken seriously.

I asked him about his experiences and how parents and potential mentors can help bridge the knowledge gap for kids who have an entrepreneurial bent. "High schools are focused on the next step, which is usually college," Smith says. "But they're not preparing you for the real world. They're making you live inside this bubble of secondary education. It doesn't have to be that way."

Want to help kids get traction on the entrepreneurial path? Smith recommends encouraging them to:

  • Read. Most kids know where their passions lie. There's a wealth of printed and digital information available for every industry sector and every level of understanding.
  • Develop relationships. Help entrepreneurial kids get out into their communities and build relationships with people who can assist them in clarifying, then attaining, their goals.
  • Search for and create opportunities. Motivate kids to explore options such as finding teachers who can act as advisors. Also, many universities offer internships and summer programs for high school students.
  • Build something. Encourage kids to get their hands dirty by writing a computer program or starting a small business. Help them understand there are no guarantees that their plans will work.

Indeed, one of the most influential ways parents and mentors can help kids is by steering them toward new thinking about The Big F: failure. "Anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur has to learn to accept failure. That's not something we're taught in school," Smith says.

Adults can break the taboo of The Big F by rewarding kids for taking risks and trying new things, then reinforcing the lessons learned from those efforts.

Smith's final words of advice for adults? "Don't undervalue what people can do just because of their age. And that goes for people who are older or younger than what you perceive as the norm. We should be more interested in great minds and solutions than the age of the people who are bringing those to the table."


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