Through a unique collaboration between higher education and a faith-based community, student entrepreneurs challenged themselves to bring their best business ideas forward in what may well be the first ever business pitch contest of its kind.
On March 7, teams of high school students pitched their concepts on stage at Lawrence Technological University’s campus in the Southfield City Centre during an event sponsored by Centrepolis Accelerator and Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, funded by a grant from the New Economy Initiative (NEI).
“NEI was looking for innovative ways to share and spread awareness of entrepreneurship among youth. There are many programs trying to get into the schools, but never in faith-based organizations, which are entrepreneurial by nature,” said Ross Sanders, manager of corporate partnerships with LTU, who has been working with youth entrepreneurs for about 15 years. “Essentially, faith-based communities are communities, and that’s what entrepreneurship is all about: creating community and connections.”
The competition allowed students to gain plenty of business know-how, Sanders says.
“When you learn about business, you learn math, computer science, how to work in a team, finances, pitching, developing a website, funding, equity, and investment. So regardless of whether you go on to launch a business, you’ve experienced a lot of learning through this event,” he says.
In first place was a product called Scholarship and Homework Aid Finder, or SHAF, an app that helps students get ready for college through support for finishing homework, and searching for colleges and financial aid sources. The winning business concept took home $1,000 in cash and $5,000 in LTU scholarships.
The second place award of $500 in cash and $2,500 in LTU scholarships went to StressLess Funerals, a website designed to support families who have lost a loved one. In third place, winning $375 in cash and $1,750 in scholarships is a product called Slashguard that helps stop toilet flush splashing.
Other pitched ideas ranged from toys embedded in soap to encourage bathing for small children, an online network for suicide prevention, a biometric gun lock to prevent accidental shootings, and a shoe-leasing business for high-end designer footwear.
“I was surprised by the ingenuity of the pitches,” says Sanders. “The students came up with a lot of innovative stuff, in my opinion.” The footwear leasing concept was an exercise in applying one business model to a new segment, as the students intuited that people who like to drive high-end vehicles will lease, thereby creating an additional market for the sale of those used cars. “The kids said ‘why can’t we do the same with shoes?’ It was an interesting thought, and a business model that fills a customer need.”
Sitting on the judging panel were Lee Gaddis, founder and CEO of Gaddis Gaming, a Detroit-based gaming table manufacturer; Lee Gorman, owner of Barton Consulting Services LLC, an Ann Arbor business consulting firm; and Belinda Turner-Dubois, loan officer at CEED Lending, a small business lending center of the Center for Empowerment and Economic Development, an initiative of the Great Lakes Women’s Business Council.
Part of the business pitch experience were four Saturday bootcamp-like coaching sessions with Jackie Stavros and Matt Cole, who are professors in Lawrence Tech’s College of Business and Information Technology, and Sibrina Collins, executive director of LTU’s Marburger STEM Center.
Business students from LTU also volunteered to act as team coaches. “The student coaches were major contributors to this event. It would not have gone off as well as it did without them,” says Sanders. “Each team was assigned a student coach, who worked with them and helped come up with and refine their business ideas.”
The high school participants toured LTU’s campus, visited the Detroit Food Academy at Eastern Market to learn about youth-run food businesses, and stopped off at Tech Town, the midtown Detroit-based startup accelerator.
“Tech Town is within a few minutes of Tabernacle Church, and it really exposed the students to all the entrepreneurial resources available there,” says Sanders.
Overall, the faith-based student pitch contest highlighted the need for more engagement with high school and middle school youth in entrepreneurship. The high turnout for this event is an indication of its value for the educational, business, and faith communities.
“These kids now know more about business than a lot of adults,” Sanders says. “They learned about scaling, leveraging, building platforms, multiple revenue streams, and a lot of other deep concepts.”