A North Carolina High School that Spins Out Entrepreneurs

Opinion

Over the years, many successful ventures have emerged from North Carolina’s rich concentration of university researchers. Some of the state’s innovators get an even earlier start: high school.

North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) began in 1980 as an innovation itself, founded as a public residential high school for academically talented high school juniors and seniors interested in STEM subjects. Schools with a STEM focus are fairly common these days, but in the early 1980s North Carolina’s economy was still based on traditional industries, including tobacco, furniture, and textiles. NCSSM’s founders—then-Governor James Hunt, Duke University President and Senator Terry Sanford, and author John Ehle—envisioned an institution that would invest in the state’s human and intellectual capital to build leadership and economic progress.

NCSSM has served as a model for 18 similar schools around the globe. For the past decade, Newsweek has ranked it one of the top public high schools in the country. NCSSM students regularly win top prizes in national and international competitions, including the coveted Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology, the Singapore International Mathematics Challenge, the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Award, and Moody’s Mathematics Challenge. Behind all the trophies and awards, NCSSM has created a vibrant ecosystem where entrepreneurship and innovation flourish. Among the school’s nearly 9,000 alumni are high-profile entrepreneurs (see a few of them here) who launch North Carolina businesses, educators who continue to lead advances in research, and practicing professionals.

What strikes me most is how the school opens doors. When I meet NCSSM students or alumni, they usually tell me, “This school literally transformed my life.” When I ask them how, they often tell me about growing up in a small North Carolina town where there was no one else like them—driven, talented, and intellectually curious. Then they came to the School of Science and Math and found academic challenge and the support of like-minded peers.

My fellow NCSSM Foundation board member, Carl Ryden, a 1989 graduate of the school, tells just such a story. He credits his career—engineering degrees from North Carolina State University and MIT, and work at several successful tech start-ups—to NCSSM. Ryden grew up in rural eastern North Carolina in a single-parent household and received free/reduced lunches in the public school system. He was smart and tested very well, but Ryden was so bored in school that he often played hooky and had to serve in-school suspensions. Thankfully, his ninth grade math teacher challenged him, rekindled his academic fire, and ultimately recommended NCSSM to him. As he boldly shared in his admissions interview, “This school was made for students like me.”

And it was: A public, tuition-free school, required by the North Carolina Legislature to accept students from all of the state’s congressional districts and dedicated to challenging bright students with a range of courses they would not find in their local schools. Ryden learned how to work harder and smarter, he says, and he built his confidence while surrounded and encouraged, for the first time, by equally bright peers.

Halfway through engineering studies at NC State, Ryden landed a summer job with IBM where worked on a small, skunkworks-type development team. The group’s leader, Tim Cook, went on to become the CEO of Apple. Their project evolved into … Next Page »

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Seasoned entrepreneur and biotech executive, Christy Shaffer, Ph.D. has over 20 years of experience in the life science industry. She is the Managing Director of Hatteras Discovery and Venture Partner at Hatteras Venture Partners. Follow @

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