Entrepreneurial high school students deliver virtual pitches
In the spring 2021 JA StartUp competition, two high school entrepreneurs won a $2,500 scholarship for their idea of a battery-powered generator for fish tanks. Motivated by a power outage resulting in the death of “our fish family, Cypress and Leo,” Jenna Matthews and Taina Diaz pitched a new product designed to help avoid such crises.
The team from Henrico County’s Douglas S. Freeman High School bested four other finalist teams with the aptly named “Toasty Tank.” The win by Matthews and Diaz was the culmination of a Junior Achievement of Central Virginia entrepreneurship training program where student high school teams developed concepts during the school year under the guidance of a high school teacher.
Launched in 2015, the annual competition was cancelled last year due to COVID but held again this year via Zoom. The program’s title sponsor was Accenture, which provided two of the three judges, Chris Lucy and Liberty Williamson. The third, Sid Tanu, is chief risk officer at EnrichHer. VCU host and competition MC was Jay Markiewicz, assistant professor and executive director of the VCU School of Business entrepreneurship programs. VCU student volunteers from the School of Business coached the finalist teams to prepare them for their business pitch presentations.
Rick Orr, teacher of the winning team from Freeman, was justly proud of his students but particularly impressed by how much they had learned. “Jenna and Taina emailed me right after the presentation,” said Orr. “They said how much they loved working with the VCU students.” Yet while Orr credits his students with “coming into the session well-organized,” he observed that “after working with the VCU students, it just elevated their work and information flow to another level. It helped them focus their messaging on what was really important, allowing them to speak more confidently on the critical points.”
Venus Zar, one of the seven volunteer VCU mentors, concurs. She says, “Each of the groups displayed a thorough understanding of their businesses and the students demonstrated the go-getting, self-starter attitude an entrepreneur needs for success.” In fact, so impressed were the mentors with the high school students’ learning curve, all of them stayed around after their coaching sessions to watch the presentations – and cheer for the winning team.
Previous Junior Achievement Competitions