BOONE — Nineteen high school students from eight U.S. states converged on the High Country in early July, having successfully been accepted into the first Appalachian Entrepreneurship Academy to be hosted by Appalachian State University. The course was jointly produced by the Appalachian Regional Commission, non-profits EntreEd and STEMWest, and the university. While the first at App State and in-person, this was the second Appalachian Entrepreneurship Academy, the first being a virtual event in 2021.
For the most part, these adolescents becoming young men and women did not know each other as they embarked on the 2-week course. Look at a scatter chart developed by Erich Schlenker, Director of the App State-based Transportation Insight Entrepreneurship Center and, at the beginning, the group of students collectively had little or no confidence they could be entrepreneurs. Fast forward 14 days, and their confidence had soared. A couple of the participants even suggested they could teach the next course.
That’s how much they had learned in the two weeks, about themselves as well as about business.
Underscoring that thought, Appalachian State Chancellor Sheri Everts told the group in her lunchtime keynote on July 22, “As you have learned through the Entrepreneurship Academy, the possibilities to grow as an entrepreneur are limitless, as a student and beyond.”
“This is experiential learning designed to cultivate creativity and develop essential entrepreneurial skills,” Schlenker said. “While learning, the students concurrently develop and implement their own business ideas, refine and prototype these ideas, and eventually deliver a ‘Shark Tank’ style pitch presentation for an audience of entrepreneurs, the judges.”
Smiling broadly, Schlenker added, “This program has transformed these young people into entrepreneurs. We are sending them back where they can have an impact in their local communities.”
“Certainly grant-making is a big part of what we do at ARC, but we also play a key role in the region in terms of bringing people together for different things,” said Brandon McBride, Executive Director of the Appalachian Regional Commission. “We target professional leaders, encouraging them to develop relationships and work across state lines, to learn from each other.”
McBride suggested that such a mission begins in programs like the Academy, bringing students together from different states and learning to work with one another to achieve common goals, to meet others interested in the same things.
The ARC covers parts of 13 U.S. states, including 423 counties. The area covered includes all of West Virginia and portions of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
“The students applied to be in the program and once they get here we put them together in different groups to develop ideas and think about how they would start a business,” said McBride. “What are the things to think about, like market research and business planning? It is an opportunity for them to learn by doing.”
McBride pointed out that all of the students are between rising sophomore and rising seniors. “They apply, then we review the applications, see what candidates we have.”
The ARC-funded Academy leverages the knowledge skills of App State, EntreEd and STEMWest to implement the program. McBride said that one of the requirements for ARC grant eligibility is to be a government agency or a non-profit.
After an introduction to what entrepreneurship is, the students were divided into six teams, and each team was challenged to come up with an idea for a business — an enterprise — that targeted a market need. On Friday, July 22, they presented those ideas in front of their peers and a panel of five judges in what the Academy organizers billed as the “Big Idea Pitch Contest.”
Each team had six minutes to “pitch” their idea to the judges, and up to an additional four minutes to field any questions from the panel. Some of the ideas focused on for-profit opportunities, such as “Smarket,” which proposed virtual reality and other computer-based technology to create a software application for choosing better fitting clothes online. Another for-profit pitch was for “Next Level Advising,” to provide counseling to small business owners about different aspects of their enterprises, whether startup or ongoing. Another for-profit, “Diamond Grounds & Marketplace,” looked to capitalize on the sale of coffee in a downtown, underdeveloped marketplace.
Non-profit entrepreneurial ideas focused on addressing social, cultural and economic needs. “Girl Gains” targeted a market of 20-30 year-old women, providing safe environments free of harassment in places like gyms and fitness centers. “Holler Youth Development Corporation” looked to move perhaps economically disadvantaged communities forward largely by harnessing the energy and ideas of its youth. “Onward Collaborative” highlighted the current high levels of teen pregnancies, teen suicides, and teen drug use before offering community based solutions.
The first place overall team was Onward Collaborative, comprised of Saige Crainer (NY), Ella Smith (NC), Ayla Solomon (NC), Sebastian Juarez Safran (PA), and Ansley Baker (TN).
The second place team was Holler Youth Development Corporation, whose team members included Carolina Johnson (KY), Jack Pollard (KY), and Kedrick LeMaster (NC).
Voted the “fan favorite” team was Smarket, including Ragad Alsubhi (SC), Sarah Smith (GA), Genesis Becerra Robles (NC), and Keyla Zhao (SC)
Next Level Advising was named “Most Impactful,” developed by Luke Brooks (NY) and Lucas Cox (VA)
The “Most Passionate” was Girl Gains, whose team included Jaqueline Velazquez Garcia (NC), Gracie Marie Hubbard (TN) and Jordyn Horan (NC).
Named “Most Heartfelt” was Diamond Grounds & Marketplace, including Victoria Spencer (NC) and Ethan Dennison (KY).
The judging panel included:
- Rika Harrison, Western North Carolina Minority Business Association
- David Henson, Business Counselor, SBTDC
- Tim Hilton, CEO (retired), Carolina Handling
- Teresa Spangler, CEO, Plazabridge Group
- Art Thompson, CEO (retired), Lane Venture