High schoolers headed to entrepreneurship challenge

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Two high school students who turned after-school hobbies into cash-generating businesses are gearing up for a trip to pitch their businesses to some of Silicon Valley’s top investors.   

Derica Sanchez, a 16-year-old senior at Northside Urban Pathways Charter School and Kara Rohlf, a 17-year-old senior at Brownsville Area High School, on Thursday won the shot to attend the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge after winning the George W. Tippins Business Plan Competition during the Ignite Possibilities Business Expo at the Rivers Club.

Ms. Sanchez’s handcrafted dog collar company Deri took home the $1,500 startup prize and Ms. Rohlf’s sweets company Delightful, Delicate, Dainty, Flavorful Fudge won the $1,000 top prize in the upstart division. Three other finalists received awards ranging from $1,000 to $250. 

Beyond the cash, Ms. Sanchez and Ms. Rohlf won something that could provide greater value: Months of intensive training to help them bring home the $20,000 grand prize in October, said Jerry Cozewith, president of Downtown nonprofit Entrepreneuring Youth.

"This isn’t just about putting music to your slideshow. This is a serious pitch in front of people who are serious about how they do venture capitalism,“ said Mr. Cozewith.

Noting that the students could come up against college-aged youth and students with big-time budgets to back their ventures, Mr. Cozewith said his group shouldn’t feel any less prepared. After all, Entrepreneuring Youth has been working for the entire school year to put this year’s winners and hundreds of other area middle and high school students on a path toward entrepreneurship.

Founded in 2009 to promote small business and financial literacy among young people in urban neighborhoods, Entrepreneuring Youth has helped 230 students build small businesses, some of which became the foundation for future careers as entrepreneurs.

And while the initiative has gained steam operating through school districts, Mr. Cozewith said it will expand to local YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh locations over the next few years, starting with a program at the YMCA’s Mt. Oliver Hilltop Learning Center in July.

Whether student entrepreneurs graduate to trade shows or trade schools, lessons learned in the program will provide a foundation for success, said Elizabeth Gingrich, an entrepreneurism teacher at Northside Urban Pathways Charter School.

"As the class goes on and the businesses become more real for them and they’re actually making money by selling their products, they begin to see the value in English, technology and math classes that they didn’t see before,” she said.

Ms. Sanchez and Ms. Rohlf bubbled with excitement at the idea of being so close to a legitimate shot at funding their dreams. But with or without the win, both said the chance to connect with teen entrepreneurs from across the nation is a victory in itself.

"I think I’m most excited about meeting other presenters and seeing what they have learned and how much they know,“ said Ms. Sanchez.

For Ms. Rohlf, confirming that the competition has as many butterflies in their stomachs as she does in anticipation of the big day is one of the biggest pluses.  "I’m looking forward to meeting the other kids who are also going through the startup competition and seeing if they are experiencing the same nervousness as we are.”

Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com 

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