Getting down to business

From left, Craig Thompson, from the city of Grand Rapids, and Aleka C. Thrash, owner of Naturally ACT, talk to students during Student StartUp Day

Kelloggsville High School students Zoey Wedge and William Vernon were debating the best way to get a new business venture started.

“You have to start small,” Zoey said. “You don’t want to make 100 cookies only to find that no one will pay for them.”

“But how are people even going to know about the business and try the cookies if you don’t market the business?” William countered.

Kelloggsville High School senior William Vernon, right, talks with teacher Richard Jackson about his team’s idea for a new clothing line and store

Similar discussions could be heard nearby as about 45 students from several Kent County high schools, Kent Innovation High and Kent Career Tech Center discussed their ideas for creating a business.

The March event, before the stay-at-home order due to coronavirus, was the inaugural Student StartUp Day, organized by Kent ISD, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Start Garden and Kent Innovation High. Hosted at the Chamber offices, it was aimed at giving high school students the opportunity to explore entrepreneurship and business.

“It stems from the idea that if you help students see themselves in the future they can achieve that,” said Kent Innovation High Principal and Administrator Jeff Bush, who helped to organize the event. “Having it here, the epicenter of business and entrepreneurship, is so the students might see themselves as part of this business community.”

Fleshing Out an Idea

Kelloggsville High School junior Milan Huynh, left, watches as junior Sabrina Nguyen prepares to present their team’s business idea

“We actually came up with the idea because we were all talking about how we watch YouTube and were thinking about a new way to get videos out to more people,” said Tech Center student Derek Haney, a junior at Northview High School. 

Derek and his team of Tech Center classmates realized there were a variety of different individual streaming channels such as Netflix, Disney + and Hulu, but no single platform where people could manage all the different accounts.

“We’re lazy,” said Forest Hills Eastern junior Thomas Braun, who also attends the Tech Center. “We don’t want to have to go to each individual channel to see what is available. Through this program, a person would be able to check a variety of the streaming services, or just use the one offered through our app.”

During Student StartUp Day, teams were encouraged to bring a business idea with them, although Bush emphasized it was not required. They spent the morning refining ideas by brainstorming and then presenting to other teams. After lunch, each team was given the opportunity to present to a panel of judges made up of business professionals who gave teams feedback on their proposed ideas.

Forest Hills Eastern High junior Thomas Braun, from Kent Career Tech Center, talks about his team’s idea for a single platform for all streaming services

Insight from the ‘Sharks’

Students said the opportunity to meet with business professionals and get their insight was valuable learning. Thomas said he spent free time learning as much about coding as possible to develop his business. Through Student StartUp Day, he now sees it as a smaller part of the single platform for streaming that his team developed.

“I wanted to gain some insight and learn more about how to make my ideas a reality,” said William, who added that he hoped the event would allow him to refine his three ideas and give him direction. 

Hearing the many ideas students were discussing was exciting to Ken James, director of inclusion for the Chamber, who added that hosting the event was a natural fit for the group, which represents more than 2,400 small and large area businesses.

“Through this, the students get exposed to the methodology and process in bringing these businesses to life,” James said. “It is also a way that we can show that the business world is ready and waiting for the next crop of talent.”

Kelloggsville High School senior William Vernon takes notes during a discussion with business leaders

Leveling Up

Start Garden’s Marketing Coordinator Murphy Ackerman said leaders there had been looking for ways to get more high school students involved in its annual business competition. Throughout the year, businesses record a 100-second pitch to be selected as one of the 100 finalists announced in June. Finalists receive $1,000 each to help improve their idea for Demo Day, which usually takes place in the fall. During Demo Day, finalists compete for a chance to win $20,000 for their venture.

“High school students have always been able to participate,” Ackerman said, adding that the minimum age to participate is 14, and that starting this year, high school students compete against one another.

At the beginning of April, Start Garden organizers announced it has adapted the Start Garden 100 competition to serve entrepreneurs whose businesses have been critically impacted by COVID-19. The new competition, The 100 Comeback, will provide grants to qualified entrepreneurs who can use the money to support themselves and their families while they figure out how to make their comeback.

Of the 100 finalist spots, five have been reserved for high school individuals or teams. Ackerman and her team were at the Student StartUp Day in case any students there were interested in filming their 100-second pitch to get the ball rolling — for that proposed cultural notebook designed for high school students, or the next vegetarian restaurant with a focus on minimizing the carbon footprint.

“Things like this is one of the reasons I stayed in Grand Rapids,” said Aleka C. Thrash, owner of Naturally ACT. “This shift from absolutely nothing offered to a grassroots force has made this area a great place to have a business.”

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma was born in the Detroit area but grew up in Brighton where she attended Hartland Public Schools. The salutatorian for the Class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism and minored in photography and German. She expanded her color palette to include orange and black as both her daughters graduated from Byron Center Public Schools; maroon and white for Aquinas College where her daughter studies nursing and also brought back blue and maize for Grand Rapids Community College where her youngest daughter currently is studying music. Read Joanne's full bio or email Joanne.

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