The big night finally happened! Last Thursday, 16 students representing 13 newly-formed businesses from the Arlington Chamber’s Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) program were about to present their business pitches to me and seven other investors in Arlington's own version of a "Shark Tank" for young entrepreneurs. The students, all between the ages of 11-17, were pitching for their opportunity to receive real dollars that would aid in the start-up costs needed to launch their businesses.
I was excited to hear their pitches! As we all mingled outside the auditorium in Marymount's new Ballston Center lobby, energy and excitement filled the air. Students expertly worked the room full of business people, parents and mentors. They passed business cards and fearlessly introduced themselves with impressively firm handshakes and sound bites from the formal presentations we were about to hear. Their confidence belied their years.
We took our seats, and Chamber President & CEO Kate Bates reviewed the outline for the evening, as well as the rules of engagement. Each business was given five minutes to pitch their concept. We were ready! One by one, the students came out on stage, nailed their intros, and introduced themselves as "CEOs." These young entrepreneurs were so impressive. We marveled at their creativity and their poise as they made their pitches and boldly asked for funding. As investor panelists, we were able to ask just three questions of each business, which was hard! Investors were also given a copy of each student's business plan, which we scanned during the presentations. We independently rated each business on the merits of business idea, sustainability of the concept, financial planning, marketing planning, and general presentation skills.
The memorable pitches included props or clever opening skits and articulate presentations. But as investors, we were also looking for long-term sustainability of the concept, market differentiation, feasibility of financial projections, and sound marketing plans. What was most remarkable to me was how well-prepared these young entrepreneurs were. Every student spoke clearly, knew their business plan well, and knew how to answer questions with confidence. Even when they weren't sure how to answer, they were able to deflect with elegance!
Once the pitches ended, our work began. We were dismissed to a secret deliberation room where we had just 15 minutes to make our decisions. In the deliberation, we selected the business that would move on to the national competition, and while the decision was tough, we selected Nadia with PawSwapped, a business that gives people who are interested in becoming pet owners the opportunity to “rent a pet” from a current pet owners, who needs a pet sitter. Determining the funding amounts was a different story. We had a limited pool of money to distribute and wanted to spend wisely. A few businesses ideas stuck out for viability and depth of research. Each of us felt passionately about different businesses, so we had some animated discussions until Kate arrived with our five-minute warning.
Students enter this program often knowing little to nothing about how to research, plan, and start a business. Throughout the course of the 21-week program, they navigate a rigorous agenda. Under the guidance of the Chamber’s YEA! Program Manager and Membership Engagement Director Alex Held, they research business concepts, prepare business plans that include financial pro formats, marketing and social medial plans, research, and register their business in Arlington, and prepare product pitch presentations. They work with three expert instructors and each student or student team is assigned a local business person as a mentor. The program culminates in the Investor Panel pitches.
All of the investors marveled at the engaging and inspiring presentations. We all acknowledged that our community is in good hands with the energy, commitment, and determination displayed by these young entrepreneurs. They are our future!