By Mike Marsee
Paige Donovan was up for a challenge.
Donovan and three of her sophomore classmates at Shelby County High School are among 700 students who jumped at the chance to participate in the inaugural Lieutenant Governor’s Entrepreneurship Challenge, a business pitch competition for Kentucky high school students.
Teams of students competed in five regional competitions this month, with the top teams advancing to the state competition April 29 at the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics.
The stakes are high for the most successful teams. The winning team will receive $40,000 in scholarships to Kentucky post-secondary institutions, to be divided among the team members. The second-place team gets $20,000 in scholarships, and the third-place team gets $10,000 in scholarships. There are also cash awards for the advisers of those teams.
Kathie Wrightson, a teacher who is advising the Shelby County team, said the value of this competition does not lie solely in whether the students win or lose.
“To me, this is the heart and soul of how America works,” Wrightson said. “You take kids that have talent and unique ideas and you connect them with professionals who can help them, then sit back and watch. Whether or not we get this business off the ground, they’ve learned enough where they could actually probably do it.”
Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton introduced the entrepreneurship challenge last fall. Hampton said she was inspired to launch the challenge – which is designed to encourage students to become entrepreneurs – after meeting small business owners across Kentucky.
“Small business is the backbone of the American economy, and the foundational language of business is threaded throughout all career clusters,” said Betty Montgomery, a business and marketing program consultant for the Kentucky Department of Education. “It is very encouraging that we have a lieutenant governor who understands the benefit of introducing these concepts at the secondary level for our students and the long-term economic success of the Commonwealth.”
A total of 250 teams applied from schools across Kentucky. Teams consisted of two to four students, and several schools had multiple teams in the competition. Simon Kenton High School (Kenton County) entered 15 teams, while Central High School Magnet Career Academy (Jefferson County) and Lee County High School had six each and duPont Manual High School (Jefferson County) had five.
Donovan met Hampton when the lieutenant governor visited her school last fall and learned of the entrepreneurship challenge on Twitter a short time later. She was ready to put a team together right away.
“I came to Mrs. Wrightson and told her that I wanted to do it, so we got our team together,” Donovan said.
Wrightson said the fact that the competition is new appealed to her students.
“They like a challenge. They like the innovative nature of this and the fact that nobody else was doing this and this was first time it was being offered,” she said.
She said the competition is an ideal opportunity to demonstrate problem-based learning.
“You give them a true problem, a real-world, hands-on problem that needs to be configured, give them support and get out of their way, and they’ll find a way to solve it,” she said.
Wrightson is the gifted and talented instructor at Shelby County, and the four students she advised are in that program. The team members worked on their project outside the classroom, sometimes even working on their presentation on their own.
Wrightson said it might be difficult to integrate the competition into a structured classroom, but she said she could envision preliminary competitions within schools to select teams that would move on to the regional competition as a way to get entire classes involved.
The competition is obviously rooted in business, but Wrightson said she’s confident it could be implemented in almost any subject area. An entry from Nicholas County High School, for example, is being led by two agriculture teachers.
“If a class is devoted to anything entrepreneurial, anything business-related, you absolutely could implement this model,” Wrightson said.
The Shelby County students have been working since November to pitch the Kentucky Change Market, which would promote economic growth by providing a simple technological platform for the purchase of local products and a philanthropic outlet for the community.
“We met a couple of times and listed different types of businesses, and the ideas had to percolate for probably a good two weeks,” Wrightson said. “They’re all pretty active in their community and that was the idea that really resonated. They knew they wanted to do something good for the community that would also bring attention to Kentucky Proud products.”
Noah Gartland, one of the four sophomores on the Shelby County team that competed April 12 at Georgetown College, said the group quickly agreed on that idea.
“We came to the conclusion that we wanted our business to be a service rather than us selling a product directly to customers,” Gartland said. “We just thought about what was new, what was innovative and what would be effective.”
Ben Brown came up with the idea of being a middle man between the businesses and the nonprofits, and the ball was rolling. There have been meetings every other week, and Belinda Nichols, who works for a local bank, was brought in as a co-adviser to help with financial statements and other aspects of the project.
“They’ve developed into independent learners. This projects is taking off on its own,” Wrightson said.
And the participants have learned a great deal.
“Going into this, I didn’t have the mindset that I wanted to go into business. I just knew that learning about business involved learning a lot of new ideas and concepts and attaining new skills that could be used for a variety of different things,” Gartland said.
“I probably learned more through this about business and doing things in real life than I’ve ever learned in the school,” Brown added.
Montgomery said students will reap the benefits of this competition long after it ends.
“The entrepreneurship challenge and the learning of fundamental concepts of business with problem-based learning will continue to resonate for both the students and business professionals involved. It doesn’t get more real than that,” she said.
Teams were scored in the five zone competitions on their written summaries, which were submitted in advance, and a 10-minute oral presentation. The top two teams from each zone advanced to the state competition, where their written submissions will be reviewed and scored by independent judges in advance and where they will once again give their 10-minute oral presentations.
“Even if we don’t go far, it was still worth it,” she said last month. “We’ve learned so many things, and just to get up in front of people and practice our presentation skills is worth it.”
The Shelby County team did not advance to the finals, but Wrightson said it was a positive experience for the students.
“The kids sure learned quite a bit, and they also had a chance to meet other students and learn about their projects as well,” she said.
Donovan and her teammates said they would love to enter the competition again next year, and Wrightson said she hopes they have the opportunity.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for us,” she said. “I absolutely recommend it and I certainly hope it continues.”
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