High school students pique community interest with innovative business plans

Kirsten Sparks, right, with Tina Frazer for the Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County.
As St. Clair County continues to see strong growth and development, one thing is clear--youth coming from the community must be part of the success.

To encourage young people to pursue their passion at home, local high school students were invited to take part in a business plan competition.

Recently, seven innovative, hard-working high school students presented business ideas to a panel of professionals.

It was the culminating event of the first ever Student Business Plan Competition, which began in December when students Derek Olbrys pitches an idea for virtual mentoring.submitted their ideas. The competition was open to high school students in the Blue Water region. Eighteen students initially signed up, and 13 showed for the first workshop. Since January, participants have attended monthly meetings where they learned how to plan for their potential businesses.

“What we are able to do is open up an environment that allows for creative thinking, creates accountability, and creates a sense of belonging,” says Quentin Bishop, director of business attraction and entrepreneurial services for the Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County.

The Underground, a business incubator and coworking space in Port Huron was filled with an audience eager to see the students' ideas.

First up to pitch was Derek Olbrys, who just graduated from Memphis High School, with Mentor Virtual Training. His presentation began by establishing the importance of mentors; even Bill Gates had Paul Allen. Mentor VT would set up an online platform to connect qualified mentors to the public. Olbrys went on to take fourth place and receive a $100 check from Marysville City Manager Randy Fernandez.

“I personally spend thousands of dollars on courses online, and I wanted to come up with an inexpensive idea for everyone to learn,” Olbrys says.

Ethan Smith is already making plans for his own Port Huron business.Next up was Ethan Smith, a Port Huron High School student who brought a unique idea to the panel. He currently works at Little Caesars where there is enough cold storage space for about a week’s worth of ingredients. Cold Space Storage Group would rent extra cold space to restaurants and farmers for their ingredients, chemicals, and produce. Restaurants could easily replenish what they need each day, and farmers could produce more without worrying so much about waste. After his presentation, Smith told The Keel that he plans to pair this business with his other idea to start a healthy pizzeria. The third place winner is already saving money for his business plans and took home $250.

The only team presentation came from Hunter Keeley, Zach Kelp, Mark McKim, and Brian Rusin. Microsoft Office (Word/Excel), A Plus certified St. Clair TEC students from Marysville High School, Landmark Academy, Yale High School, and Capac High school, respectively. They created Hardwired, a company aiming to fix the faults in standard Ethernet cables and provide them for much cheaper than off-the-shelf products. Their cables combine the wires and protective sheaths together with thick, flexible rubber on the outside for protection.

Bishop says he saw the group perfecting their slides at midnight the day before the competition, and the dedication paid off as they took second place and earned a $500 check.

The first place winner was Port Huron Northern High School sophomore Kirsten Sparks with her concept The Greenhouse. Healthier eating is the purpose of Kirsten Sparks' business plan.Sparks is a vegetarian, so healthy eating is a priority for her. Focused on fresh food, The Greenhouse restaurant would grow its ingredients right on its rooftop. Accessible, nutritious food and reduced shipping costs were two major selling points. To keep with the theme, cooking classes would be offered, and extra ingredients could be sold at local supermarkets.

Sparks was the youngest of the competitors at 15 years old and the only girl. She took home $1,000 for her big win, but isn’t sure what she will use the money for yet.

“She did this not because she had to, but because she wanted to. She’s passionate. She was made for this,” Tammy Sparks, Kirsten’s stepmother says.

It’s true: the optional competition brought in students who are go-getters, those who go out of their way to learn and find resources to create opportunities for themselves. Though they are young, these students really see the value of networking, pinpointing goals, hard work, and personal growth. It is mindset of an entrepreneur.

“To start, all you have to do is show up every time and give it your all. It will pay off,” Kirsten says.

While watching the presentations, it was apparent that coming up with PowerPoint slides and researching the logistics of running a business taught the high schoolers invaluable, professional skills. Olbrys says the biggest thing he learned from the competition was how to present.

Smith paced the floor instead of standing in one spot, looked at the judges directly, and had a comfortable confidence that made the audience believe in what he was creating. Sparks spoke eloquently, but with enthusiasm, using hand gestures while talking. Hardwired used relatable examples, like family pets tangling up cords, while pitching their idea.

After their presentations, the three-judge panel questioned each student. Smith was prepared when asked about rent, noting that it would depend on size and that he had already considered prices for both cold storage and refrigeration. Sparks very professionally reworded each question before answering to make sure the judges felt they were understood.

All of the students started their pitches by clearly establishing the problem, something they learned in a workshop. They then researched their possible competition. Smith, for example, told the audience that although similar companies to his exist, there are none in St. Clair County or the surrounding counties. Sparks pulled up a bad review of one of her competitors, noted a lack of control over the temperature in another, and showed side-by-side price comparisons for cooking classes. The finalists came up with a business model and the problems they might run into, determined effective advertising, and looked into revenues, expenses, funding, and financial projections for the first few years.

“It is a special thing to see students engaging in creativity, engaging in their passions and those things that a lot of adults seem to struggle with about creating a plan and executing those plans,” Bishop says. “It’s just amazing that the students have the ability to do it because it breaks down all of the barriers we see in adults, like we can’t because of this thing about money, or this thing about time, this thing about schedules.”

The first Student Business Plan Competition was made possible by The Underground Business Incubator, the St. Clair County EDA, and prize money from the Community Foundation of St. Clair County. It was such a success that there will be another next year, ending on May 20.

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