High school entrepreneurs show their stuff
Kaili Kellam stood tall in her pressed oxford shirt and black stilettos, looking coolly over an audience of 20 fellow teenagers in a Babson College classroom as she not only bared her personal struggles, but also masterfully married them to a mock business proposal.
“I want to start a dance studio for kids with both mental and physical disabilities,” the 17-year-old from Natick said confidently. “My mom went from being nondisabled to disabled, and I watched her struggle with that. But dancing builds confidence, and the classes would help these kids gain friends in a nonjudgmental setting.”
Kellam, a junior at Framingham’s Keefe Technical High School, was one of dozens of teens from across the state who competed Friday in a rapid entrepreneurial business pitch contest, a format inspired by ABC’s “Shark Tank” reality television series. The students were allotted one minute to pitch their idea to an audience of their peers who at the end voted for their favorite plan.
The annual competition is organized by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a national nonprofit that provides programs showing middle and high school students how to create a business from scratch.
The New York City-based organization targets schools with low-income students, working with teachers to design a class in the school’s curriculum dedicated to dreaming up a future business. In Massachusetts, schools in Framingham, Malden, Quincy, Boston, Lawrence, and Lowell are among those chosen to take part.
“In today’s economy, it’s important to show these students they can not only be a job consumer, but also a job creator, and how one can fall back on creating their own income,” said Jennifer Green, executive director of the organization’s New England chapter, which is based at Babson in Wellesley.
In the competition, Quincy High School freshman Vanessa Ly pitched her idea for skin-colored deodorant patches.
“My friend always gets made fun of for her armpit stains,” the soft-spoken Ly said.
Malden High sophomore Alyssa Figueiredo drew on experience with cancer patients for her plan to create a line of boldly decorated cupcakes, with 10 percent of the profits benefiting the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
“I loved the whole idea of being able to be my own boss, and creating something and succeeding from it,” Figueiredo said with unbridled, genuine enthusiasm after the competition. “I have a lot of friends whose parents have battled breast cancer, and they’re close to me — almost like family members. I’ve also always had a passion for baking and I’m a real girly-girl, so I was thinking about what I could do to put everything I love together.”
Figueiredo and Kellam, who won their individual categories, were rewarded with $50 in “seed money” for their ideas; the runners-up Friday all received $25.
The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship is hosting regional and national pitch competitions later this year, with a first-place prize of $25,000.
Kellam said she would use her prize money to rent a room in a dance studio or church as a launching pad for her business, with her goal to “figure this out by my senior year.”
One of her classmates at Keefe Tech, Monique Bisnette, came in second place with an idea to create a smartphone app that lets users design tattoos and superimpose them on their body. Bisnette said she became interested in tattoos after her cousin inked himself in memory of another cousin, who died on a snowy road in Holden in 2010.
“People get tattoos to tell a story,” Bisnette said, tugging down a sleeve to cover up an elegant Celtic design she drew on her arm. “I don’t think anyone should have to deal with regret because of that decision.”
During last week’s competition at Babson, even those who did not win said they felt encouraged and energized by the experience.
Keefe Tech junior Colin Kelly, a lanky 18-year-old who has spent half his life fighting ulcerative colitis, a digestive condition related to Crohn’s disease, donned a chef’s hat and apron before he pitched an online meal preparation service for those with food allergies or dietary restrictions. Kelly said he would donate a portion of profits to charities working to find cures for nutrition-related diseases like diabetes.
“When I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, I found out I could only eat half the stuff I normally do, and I was a terribly picky eater to begin with,” Kelly said, motioning to his skinny frame. “But when I got to Keefe Tech, I fell in love with food and started cooking. Now I want to use the skills I learned here to start a business that will help people.”
Ambition is one reoccurring theme across the entrepreneurship program. The organization’s alumni includes Jasmine Lawrence, who in 2004 at age 13 pitched her idea for all-natural hair products designed for African-American women. Since then, Lawrence’s EDEN BodyWorks line has been picked up at stores such as Walmart, and Oprah Winfrey invited the teenage chief executive to appear on her talk show, Green said.
This year, the organization brought in Boston native Angela Ivana, another successful program alumna who now works as a makeup artist on Broadway.
Before taking the entrepreneurship program, Ivana said at last week’s gathering, “I was skipping class and I had a 1.1 GPA. I got started there, which helped motivate me. I eventually got into the National Honor Society and graduated with a 3.4 GPA.”
Green said many students in the entrepreneurial program launch their business models while still in high school.
“These kids are often actually starting these businesses before the course even finishes,” she said. “Even if they’re not starting their business, I tell them to take their plan to their college interviews. Recruiters are blown away that 17- and 18-year-olds already have their first business plan, and have perhaps even launched it.”
The entrepreneurship classes are growing more popular in Massachusetts. Last year, the organization saw about 30 students compete at Babson; this year, close to 90 teens signed up, Green said.
The program also proves popular in individual schools. Matthew Warren, who teaches the entrepreneur course at Keefe Tech, said about 65 students enrolled in his class this year, even though they have heard how rigorous it is.
“The great thing about this class is when they do something like this and they succeed, then it becomes something they might actually want to do in the long run,” Warren said.