Startup Challenge Allows Young Entrepreneurs to Present Business Ideas

Buoyed by the success of last year’s inaugural competition, the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), working with regional educators, businesses and economic development agencies will bring together scores of students seeking more than $10,000 in prizes awarded for their
entrepreneurial initiatives.

“Our goal is to enhance our pipeline for young entrepreneurs, those at the K through 12 level,” said Sara Parkinson, LEAP’s director of communications and talent, and coordinator of the program. “This kind of event offers students the experience of being in touch with the professional side of things.”

The event unfolds like a science fair, but for business. Students, either in teams or individually, submit a two-page executive summary outlining a proposal. They are given a table to set up a display and are judged by teams of business professionals, who award points for the quality of the business plan and overall presentation, which includes how well the idea is pitched.

Among the judges at last year’s Startup Challenge was Lansing Board of Water and Light’s (BWL) Director of Public Relations, Calvin Jones.

“There were some terrific ideas that these kids were serious about putting out there. We’ve got some very talented young people in this country that come up with lots of ways to make life very good as we move forward,” he said.

Jones, who plans to be a judge again this year, said that as a student he received an introduction to the business world through Junior Achievement. “It certainly fueled my interest in the field of business. It was a good wake-up call.”

The idea of nurturing entrepreneurial skills among young people has momentum. In its first student-focused event last year, LEAP partnered with Junior Achievement, the Small Business Technology Center, the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, the NEO Center, TIC incubator, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., regional colleges and others.

It worked closely with Generation E, a Battle Creek-based nonprofit that develops entrepreneurial education programs and provides consulting services to schools and community-based organizations. Schools that had worked with the nonprofit, notably Frankenmuth High School and the West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science, joined with students from Ingham, Clinton and Eaton Counties.

This year, the program is targeting just tri-county schools, Parkinson said, adding that LEAP is working with organizations like Eaton Regional Services Educational Agency (RESA) which sponsors youth business development programs. Clinton County also supports school programs.

LEAP is encouraging students from these initiatives to attend the Startup Challenge. And the lure is prize money.

“Last year we gave $10,000 in prize dollars,” Parkinson said. The money came from corporate sponsors and a MEDC grant.

LEAP expects that many of the businesses that supported the challenge last year will again participate. Among those supporting the event were Neogen, Davenport University, Sparrow Health Systems, MSU Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU), Dean Transportation and BWL. They also supplied judges.

“Any number of the ideas we saw were really cutting edge. There was a group that came up with a deal for grocery shopping, where people would put together their list and they (students) would go out and do the shopping for them. It was based on the fact that with an aging population more people need to stay in their homes. Shopping was an accommodation they would provide,” Jones said.

The big winner in 2014 was DeWitt High School’s Marissa Hoffman, who promoted her Mountain Cupcake Business. She received $1,500 in prizes, taking home the Sparrow Award of Excellence and the Harvest Best Table Display.

Other award winners were Elle Bos from Eaton Rapids High School, whose photography proposal won the $1,000 MSUFU Award of Excellence and Leslie Middle School students Andrea Piper, Lily Robinson and Chase Lewis who split the $500 LEAP Best Team Prize and $500 Spartan Innovations “Innovation” Award for their “Getting to Know Your Middle School” coloring book.

They were among the 20 or so students brought to the competition by sixth-grade teacher Laura Fenger. She explained the winning entry: “they made a coloring book to give to the fourth graders to acclimate them to the middle school. It was the kids’ idea, part of my gifted-and-talented program.”

Fenger explained that she had found a website that turned pictures into coloring book pages. It was the spark that ignited the venture. Her students researched the cost of printing, got a $230 grant from the community foundation, took photos of the school and contracted for 100 copies of the book.

“It was their idea that they could do this for other schools,” Fenger said, summarizing the students’ business plan. Other students from her classes also won prizes for babysitting and lawn care services.

Fenger plans to bring about 20 students to this year’s challenge. “It was an outstanding event. I was so impressed with everything they set up. The kids loved it. When we started again in the fall, immediately they said are we doing the business expo again.”

The Lansing Youth Startup Challenge will take place on April 29 at the Lansing Center.

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