Eye on the prize: Students ready to pitch innovative business ideas to community leaders

Quentin Bishop (right) chats with Ethan Smith about is pizzeria plans.
It's Monday evening, and a group of students are hard at work in The Underground, not doing homework, but learning more about entrepreneurship and how to start their own businesses.

For these 13 students, making plans and setting goals could give them a significant leg up when it comes to their futures.
The students are taking part in a business competition designed for high schoolers. The program consists of five workshops, including a pitch to investors on their own "businesses" and a chance to win up to $1,000.

On this particular night, the students are examining business plans and working on projecting their financials. That involves determining costs and where to set prices so the business turns a profit, and ultimately reaches a set sales goal.

Quentin Bishop, director of Business Attraction & Entrepreneurial Services for the Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County says the student business competition was offered to students across the Blue Water reach. Each of the students selected applied to be a part of the program.

Kirsten Sparks hopes she'll win the business competition with her restaurant plans.The competition is offering them real-world experience in what it's like to launch a business.

"Students engaging their ideas in meaningful project-based experiences creates impactful scenarios," Bishop says. "Each idea is screened, analyzed, and revised so that what emerges is a plan that allows our next generation leaders to develop real world thinking skills."

Thinking skills that will help create a talent pipeline for the county and showcase alternative career paths.

"We are identifying the talent pipeline in the county for the next decade," Bishop says. "I hope they realize they've learned a valuable skill and that it happened here."

Ideally, the students will bring their talents to St. Clair County when they are ready, but no matter where life takes them, they'll have an essential skill set to bring to business leaders wherever they are in the workforce.

For Ethan Smith, a 17-year-old senior at Port Huron High School, the program is giving him first hand knowledge about opening a pizza place in the future.

If he wins the competition, he'll be saving the funds for the restaurants he plans to open with his father.

"A pizza place is not too expensive to set up," Smith says.

Smith is learning the ins and outs of working at a pizza shop at a local Little Caesars. He sees families come in every night and grab a pie for dinner, even though it isn't the healthiest option for their families. It is, however, quick and easy.

For Smith, the desire to move out of a poor neighborhood and help people eat healthier are his driving force.

"I'm going to create a healthier option to pizza and have a healthier community," he says.

His hope is to have multiple locations open within five years, including a site in downtown Port Huron he has already chosen.

"It's the perfect size, and will have lots of traffic, it should be busy all the time," Smith says. "The customers are there."

For 15-year-old Kirsten Sparks, a sophomore at Port Huron Northern High School, the competition is about learning more about the business world.

This year, she started taking more business courses and school and has really been enjoying it. The student business competition gave her a chance to really dig into entrepreneurship.

Her pitch will focus on a farm-to-table style restaurant, that is very green, simplistic and minimalistic.

Her premise is to grow food for the restaurant, and have a food recycler that takes all the leftovers and turns it into fertilizer that is reused for growing more food.

Her hope is that a restaurant like this would help tackle obesity and bring healthier food to people at a lower cost.

The project has helped Sparks learn a lot about business that she normally wouldn't in high school, like building a businessDerek Olbrys works on his business plan plan and projecting costs.

"I've definitely learned about business and finances," she says, "I knew how dedicated people have to be to own a business, but no so much about the money it takes to get started."

Sparks says starting a business can be really intimidating, but she hopes that as word gets out about the student competition and entrepreneurship that people will get excited and consider opening their own companies.

Memphis High School senior Derek Olbrys is excited to share his virtual training program. It brings knowledge from people who have it to those who need it.

With a strong business model, he's hopeful to one day pursue the idea.

If his pitch wins the competition, Olbrys plans to save the money or use it for self-education. For now, after high school, he plans to work in the insurance industry.

Bishop says he is amazed by the potential each of the students shows and cannot wait to see them pitch their ideas to real investors next month.

During their April meeting, students will finalize their business plan PowerPoint presentations and practice selling their ideas in four minutes or less.

Their final pitches to a panel of investors will be at 6 p.m. May 21 at The Underground, 301 Huron Ave., Port Huron.

The program has been invaluable to the students and is expected to be back next year. The competition is open to St. Clair County students in grades 9-12. Look for more information next fall.
 
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