An intrepid group of students may never know the feeling of opportunity wasted. They’re jumping right into their school’s very own version of “Shark Tank.”
If you haven’t seen the television show “Shark Tank,” here’s the gist: aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas before a panel of well-known millionaires, in hopes of securing funding. Many bravely enter the tank, many are turned away and many likely sit at home, kicking themselves for not having found their own million-dollar idea.
An intrepid group of students at Barrington High School won’t know the feeling of an opportunity wasted. Although they aren’t appearing on television, they’re experiencing their own “Shark Tank” right in the classroom, as part of the Business Incubator Startup Education class. Not only will students learn the basics of a startup, but they’ll pitch their own ideas before local investors.
Started in fall 2013, the program was the brainchild of two local entrepreneurs, Michael Miles and Karl Fruecht, who saw great opportunities in a high school entrepreneurship course.
The course provides students with the chance to create and fully develop their own products and services. Actual entrepreneurs and business experts will coach and mentor these sophomore and junior students during the first year. Throughout the experience, the students, working in groups, learn about ideation, market research, business plan development, accounting, human resources and the legal aspects of running a business.
Then comes Pitch Week: the time when students present ideas to actual investors, who can provide actual funding to the students’ actual businesses. Groups that receive investments continue on to the second year of the program, to learn how to test and run their fledgling companies.
The class is led by Hagop Soulakian, a former Chicago Mercantile Exchange trader who has taught the course since its inception. In the course’s first year, five groups received funding. Currently, 78 new students are enrolled.
“It’s a very successful program, and the response from kids, parents and the community was positive,” Soulakian says.
During the first year, students mostly brainstorm, read books about business, do research, hear presentations from industry experts and use problem-solving skills to develop their ideas.
“First semester is all about trying to put together a viable business model that they can test out the second semester and take to customers,” says Soulakian.
Students present two pitches the first year, one of which is the “Shark Tank” portion of the class. During this particular pitch, students share their ideas in the school’s auditorium, which is filled with investors – both donors to the program and independent investors.
“Students pitch to outside and inside investors,” Soulakian says. “A minimum of one team will be chosen. Last year, all five were chosen, with investments totaling $80,000.” Remember, these are just high schoolers.
Senior Scott Arnett, now in his second year of the course, is CEO of FuntasTech, a group that received funding last year.
“We’ve taken it upon ourselves to teach senior citizens how to use technology such as tablets, cellphones and computers,” explains Arnett. “Things have been going extremely well. We’ve partnered with a local luxury retirement home, The Garlands, and we are now an affiliate of iCracked, so we will soon be able to repair phones as well.”
Arnett dreamed up the idea after he gave his grandmother an iPad. Although his grandmother enjoyed the device, she sometimes ran into obstacles using it, and would often call him for help.
“I couldn’t be there all the time,” Arnett says, “and I started to think, ‘I wish there was someone who was friendy, caring and attentive. That’s how FuntasTech started.”
Building his own business has helped Arnett to develop many important skills.
“I would say I’ve mostly learned that persistence and hard work pay off,” he says. “People say ‘no’ because they don’t know enough about your business. Hagop is always there to provide insight and advice. He’s always really good about pushing us, and has helped us perform to our full potential.”
Arnett says he’s not certain what will happen to FuntasTech when he goes to college, but he and his three teammates are committed to keeping the venture going. They’ll most likely pass it along to students whose own ideas haven’t yet received funding.
“We will definitely check in and hold them accountable,” Arnett says. “This class is really good for any student. It teaches incredible skills you can’t get in just any class. I learned much about communication skills and public speaking. It was high pressure at times, convincing millionaires why they should invest in our idea, but it definitely made public speaking easier.”
Sophomore Jackie Batliner is new to the course this year. She signed up based on recommendations from her brother and friends.
“Our goal this year is to get funded,” she says about her team’s company, Munis, which connects high school students with busy adults and senior citizens who need help with odd jobs. “So far, we are getting good feedback about what we need to change and make better. We are learning what customers will want, not just what we think they want. I know I will be using a lot of what I learn in the future.
“It really helps us, especially with the guest speakers and the financial aspects of learning. It’s hands-on and helps you retain the information. We’ve learned quite a bit through our teacher. He teaches a lot about how a business has to run, but once you understand it, all of the pieces fit together like a puzzle. It’s really helping us to hit the ground running.”
Mentors also are an important aspect of the program; each group is assigned a professional with industry experience. One such mentor is Tom Yorton, a Barrington resident in his second year with the startups class.
A self-described “marketing and ad guy,” Yorton is CEO of The Second City Communications in Chicago. He got involved with the course because he knew one of its creators and felt his background would prove useful to students. Yorton communicates with his group once a week, by phone, e-mail or in face-to-face meetings.
“It’s been fun – the kids are so smart,” he says. “Just stepping back and looking at what they are doing, it’s impressive. It’s fun for me because they are working on real business issues. This is the real deal. They’re committed. The kids care about results and it’s gratifying. It’s real life, real business. It’s not from a textbook and not pretend. It’s about as close to reality as they can possibly get … and honestly, most kids aren’t even getting this opportunity in college.”
Even students who don’t receive funding will gain knowledge with far-reaching benefits, says Soulakian. “A lot of kids now get trapped by a grade- and point-driven system,” he says. “In this class, they learn about hard work, drive, communication and collaboration. A lot of these kids weren’t comfortable with communication before, but they have to be able to work, figure out things. This allows them to problem solve.
“Ultimately, learning, to me, is through experience,” he continues. “These kids are experiencing real life at a young age, and getting a sense of what it’s like outside Barrington High School.”
Soulakian says he’s enjoyed watching his students grow and invest so much time in the course. Although it can be difficult when groups that have worked so hard are not funded, he loves his job, and says he can’t think of any other type of teaching that fits his personality better.
Looking forward, he sees an opportunity to expand a class about entrepreneurialism into a venture of its own.
“We’re trying to take the program and curriculum across the United States,” he says. “A couple of schools have adopted the program already, and there are more schools contacting us on a daily basis. I see this class as being a leading figure. It’s cutting-edge and we have proven that it can be done.”