Henry M. Gunn High School math teacher Cristina Florea’s students had frequently asked her two questions. The first: How do math concepts apply to the real world? The second: Why didn’t Gunn, a school located in an entrepreneurship hotspot, offer a business class?
Florea considered these two questions, then thought about what she learned from her undergraduate degrees in math and business — and slowly, the pieces clicked together. The resulting idea? A lunchtime club called BEAM, an acronym for Business, Entrepreneurship and Math, where Florea could teach students how math applied to business settings.
Four years after the idea took off, BEAM expanded to become an international business program that teaches students real-life business skills and their applications. Over the years, it has partnered with companies like Google, Facebook and SAP, who sponsored exchange program trips for BEAM students in different countries to collaborate. The program currently has over 5,000 alumni and 3,000 students worldwide.
But BEAM hasn’t always been a massive success. In 2013, Florea had just chartered her club after asking and hearing interest from a few of her students. Her small club of five members grew steadily, and by the next year, BEAM had evolved to become like “a little family.”
“[The students] were so into all these case studies basically that we were doing and I was thinking, ‘Why does it have to be only inside the classroom?’” Florea said. “When you do something applied, you have to have some sort of impact outside of the classroom [for it] to really be applied.”
So, Florea turned to local nonprofits and began asking if her students could volunteer, to apply the skills they learned in class. However, Florea said most nonprofits were hesitant to agree, because they thought high school students lacked the maturity to think about business concepts.
But five months later, a nonprofit in downtown Palo Alto called Deborah’s Palm, a women’s community center, agreed to collaborate. Florea’s roughly 25 students began looking at financial statements and offering suggestions for how the nonprofit could become more financially independent. They also helped revamp the nonprofit’s digital marketing with new social media fliers, analyzed volunteer recruitment data and created a financial strategy.
By the beginning of the next school year, Florea had around 50 students coming into her classroom at lunch each week, and all of them were volunteering for the nonprofit.
“I was like, ‘I’m so sorry you have to deal with so many teens,’ and she [the nonprofit director] was like, ‘No, I love it. They’re doing a great job,’” Florea said. “And then I thought, ‘Okay, we need to create something bigger here. … We’ve hit a hotspot, right?”
In 2015, news of the club had made its way to City Hall, and Thomas Fehrenbach, the city’s economic development manager at the time, reached out to Florea offering his help. He said he had some connections to Ernst & Young, an accounting firm, and proposed that Florea pitch BEAM to them.
“And I said, ‘I’ve never pitched,’” Florea said. “I was a math teacher. I didn’t have a network.”
But despite her initial doubts, Florea worked with Fehrenbach to create her pitch, and successfully convinced Ernst & Young to collaborate on a curriculum for BEAM.
“Then I realized, okay, maybe I have a little bit of a salesperson in me,” Florea said. “Maybe I can do this.”
A year later, Florea turned back to the nonprofits, this time equipped with a professionally written curriculum to show. She successfully established more partnerships, and with over 100 student members, BEAM switched from a lunch club to an after-school program.
Many parents and students then asked Florea why BEAM wasn’t an official course at Gunn, which prompted her to propose it to the Gunn administration. It was accepted, and the next year, BEAM became the first and only non-traditional math elective offered at Gunn.
Through purely word-of-mouth, other schools in the Bay Area — such as Los Altos High School and Mountain View High School — began setting up BEAM as a lunchtime club. In 2017, the program went international. From there, BEAM’s expansion picked up speed, and with large companies like Tibco Software offering paid internships to BEAM students, Florea realized it was necessary to set up BEAM as a nonprofit organization.
“BEAM grew so much that our small board and the people who volunteered for us couldn’t keep up with its growth,” Florea said. “We thought the time had come that we would be acquired, or we would merge with some other nonprofit or some other organization that had more resources and more staff.”
That organization turned out to be Neighbors Abroad, which acquired BEAM in 2017 and had supported BEAM since the very beginning, according to Florea.
Now, as an entrepreneurship class, BEAM allows students the opportunity to develop business skills such as collaboration, project management, leadership and public speaking while working on a mock startup, which they pitch to local companies. The class structure also provides students with the space to develop creative ideas in the context of real-world application.
For educators like Christin Schuler, who teaches BEAM at the English Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, BEAM was attractive because of how it differed from most typical high school classes.
“I was fascinated with BEAM right from the start,” Schuler said. “It’s great to provide the students with real-life experiences and to let them be creative. It’s totally different from ‘normal’ lessons, because it’s groupwork-based and the students are responsible for the course of their project.”
Through the program, students have gained skills, knowledge and experiences that follow them into their college lives.
“I first learned about market analysis for how to develop a product in that class [BEAM], and so I think that really gave me foundational knowledge that I still remember,” said BEAM alumnus Sophia Lu, who now studies business at the University of Southern California. “I think I definitely would not have chosen this path if I had not been exposed to it at all in high school.”
BEAM alumnus Hanna Suh said she would recommend BEAM even for students not interested in business. As a Tech Management major at New York University, Suh said she didn’t realize how helpful the lessons she learned through BEAM — such as how to network and maintain a growth mindset — would be for her college career.
James Chang-Davidson, a former BEAM student executive, mentor and advisor, said BEAM served as the “jumping point” for all of his internships and co-ops in college.
“There’s very few courses that have such a tangible translation from the classroom out into the real world,” Chang-Davidson said. “It [BEAM] served as a foundation for so many different pieces of my later college career.”
As the founder, Florea never envisioned BEAM to be any more than a simple lunchtime club. But now, with the program in schools across seven countries and an ever-growing student base, Florea said she is thankful for the positive role BEAM has played in students’ lives around the world.
“The impact that it’s made around the world is significant,” Florea said. “It really warms my heart to see that with high school students.”