The young lady stood calmly before an audience of some two hundred and in 90 seconds explained how she could turn their investment of $750,000 into a new company with a new unique product that would save the US Postal Service hundreds of millions of dollars and get the potential venture capitalists 12 times their investment within 2 years–“We are Inkblot, a new startup!”. Her poise and confidence seemed more akin to an aggressive entrepreneur ready to compete in the global market than the high school senior she actually was. She was participating in the STEM3 Challenge— an exciting and unusual (if not unique) business plan contest— sponsored by the Upper Rio Grande Workforce Solutions and other public and private institutions. This new entrepreneur was a member of a select 15 teams, involving some 50 high school students from a dozen high schools in a region encompassing El Paso to as far away as Marfa and Presidio in the Rio Grande Valley.
STEM (standing for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills have been identified by the Texas Workforce Solutions as key to economic advancement and future job acquisition in the border region and Texas. The STEM3 Challenge, an annual event now in its 3rd year, allows high school students to demonstrate their STEM abilities by imagining themselves as entrepreneurs creating new, innovative businesses through the application of their STEM skills and interests. With guidance from their teacher advisers they put together slick, professional looking business plans with all the elements necessary to describe a new startup, including descriptions of the business and its products, the identified market, its competitors, the technology being utilized and the financial analysis along with requisite proforma financials for investment by Angels and VC’s. They often came armed with business cards, pamphlets outlining their company and its products and, sometimes actual prototypes of the product they are planning to sell (a chamber-loading pistol device–Swift Mag!).
Producing these business plans required months of preparation, requiring strong support from high school administrations and their faculty sponsors. This past year a business plan workshop was held by UTEP’s CREIE for the teachers and their teams to help them in preparing their plans. Advisors from the Work Force Solutions staff also visited the individual high schools to provide assistance and consultations in building the teams. This year twenty-seven plans were evaluated by regional experts a week earlier for 15 slots in the two day contest held this past weekend (March 9-10). Proposals ranged from alternative energy applications, health devices and services, biotechnology, and IT applications to new, innovative “sustainable” solutions and services/products.
An “elevator pitch” contest held on day one brought these high school teams together with the university-level, nationally sanctioned Camino Real Venture Competition participants, competing in parallel with the STEM3 Challenge. This phase of the contest placed a member of each team on stage with just 90 seconds to “pitch” their idea to a potential investor encountered in the proverbial elevator. Interestingly the high school teams sometimes matched or even exceeded their university colleagues in their skill and excitement in presenting their pitches before the common audience.
The following day at the UTEP campus the 15 teams were down-selected, vying in 20 minute presentations before regional judges, to the three finalists. Much like the reality hit show, “Shark Tank”, the students were confronted in these sessions by “investors” ready to write a check if the students could persuade them to do so. The top three (with only a few minutes of preparation following their announcement as finalists) then competed before the entire audience to determine the top winner. Not too surprising, it was the young lady and her team described above for their Inkblot Postal Service company who took top honors.
While cash prizes and trophies were the obvious rewards ($500 to each of the winning team members, lesser amounts to the runner-ups), less obvious was the lifelong skills and ideas that these young men and women took away from this experience. Many had their eyes opened to the possibilities of what they could aspire to achieve in the world of innovation and entrepreneurism, including—start their own company–take an idea and build a new business–relate what they learned in classroom theory to real life scenarios of team building and product development–relate science and technology to real solutions–use math and analytical skills to improve probabilities for success–enhance people skills to sell themselves and their ideas. Exposure to a world class university environment and rubbing elbows with university students (Air Force Cadets!) only a few years older with like ambitions could only reinforce their desire to succeed in our increasingly competitive world.
Not all was make believe either. Among the judges was a prior year STEM Challenge finalist, Jeffery Brown, who ultimately patented his product idea and started his own company, Traction Jack. Today, he is a full time student looking to get a degree in Aeronautical Engineering, as well as a full time entrepreneur looking to make his startup business grow and become successful.
Who knows but you may be seeing Inkblot at your local Post Office in the near future as well! —Paul Maxwell