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Teen entrepreneurs compete in national challenge

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Posted: Thursday, October 17, 2013 6:00 am

Local teen entrepreneurs Tiara Gibson and Aliyah Wilson competed recently in the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge in New York City.

Tiara and Aliyah were among 34 competitors from across the country vying for $25,000 in cash and prizes that included startup capital, consulting and business coaching services, and scholarship money.

Maxine Clark, founder and former CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop, and Bob Fox, founder of NewSpace Inc., hosted a formal send-off reception and dinner for the girls prior to their departure at the St. Louis Club in Clayton.

In June, Tiara and Aliyah were part of the first-ever Start It Up St. Louis BizCamp: Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge, held at the Saint Louis Science Center’s Taylor Community Science Resource Center. The NFTE-run BizCamp, sponsored by MasterCard Worldwide, offered a free full-day, two-week intensive program designed to teach entrepreneurship and business concepts to low-income high school students.

NFTE, with headquarters in New York City, has 19 U.S. program sites and 12 internationally serving 500,000 students worldwide. In St. Louis, 40 students representing 16 high schools in seven school districts, including Normandy, Ferguson-Florissant and St. Louis Public Schools, participated in the pilot program.

MasterCard supports NFTE programs around the world and was instrumental in NFTE’s expansion into the St. Louis market, according to Amanda Gioia, senior business leader of Worldwide Communications at MasterCard. Additional support came from NFTE organizational partners College Bound, Urban League and the Science Center’s Youth Exploring Science (YES) program. St. Louis BizCamp students were involved with one of the three programs; Tiara and Aliyah are both YES participants.

At the culminating event of the camp, Tiara and Aliyah were among six finalists who presented their original business plans to a panel of judges.

“Of the six finalists,” said Clark, who was the keynote speaker, “I would have invested my own money in at least three of them.”

As first-place winners, Tiara and Aliyah each won a $400 cash prize and were assigned coaches to help the girls polish up their business plans before the national competition.

“After we won in June, I thought that we were on our own,” Tiara said.

“I think that was one of the best ideas that NFTE could’ve ever come up with,” Aliyah said, “because we needed help.”

During the send-off, Tiara, founder and CEO of Quik Squeeze Bottles, was first to present her business plan to a small, but intimidating, audience of superintendents, NFTE partners and senior-level executives. Tiara described Quik Squeeze as a revolutionary 24 oz. water bottle featuring a filter and all natural flavor cubes in an eight-and-a-half minute presentation.

Aliyah, founder and CEO of Cool-Aid Crutch Wear, came prepared with a visual aid, a prototype of a customized pair of fuchsia pink and zebra-print crutches. Aliyah said she was inspired by an injury she sustained last year that resulted in four major foot surgeries that left her dependent on crutches for months.

Their presentations were followed by brief Q&A sessions with members of the audience, who later submitted feedback forms on things like gestures, eye contact and speed.

Bert Vescolani, president and CEO of the Science Center, asked Tiara and Aliyah a series of questions after their presentations that concluded with their thoughts on heading to New York.

“I’ve been to New York before so I’m not too nervous,” Aliyah said. “I just want to win.” The audience chuckled.

And, she did just that.

NFTE said via Twitter, “Congrats to Aliyah W! She and her business ‘Cool Aid Crutch Wear’ have won the Elevator Pitch Challenge and $2,500!”

Clark said she was inspired by what she called the “Build-A-Bear generation” to get involved with NFTE and is leading the charge of those actively working to expand the St. Louis BizCamp into 2014 and beyond.

“This was the perfect opportunity for me to take my new philosophy of not being the CEO of anything anymore, but to inspire the CEO in others,” Clark said.

NFTE aims to foster and support entrepreneurial culture in the St. Louis region. NFTE’s goal is to serve more than 1,000 youth over the next three years by introducing classroom-based, in-school programs taught by NFTE-certified teachers and raise a total of $750,000 in operating costs. To date, NFTE has raised $108,000 toward its one-year goal of $170,000.  

“It’s extremely important to be in communities that have a need,” said Victor Salama, vice president of business & international partnerships.

“The school districts that we’re speaking to have shown a real interest in entrepreneurship and small business education.”

For more information about NFTE, visit http://www.nfte.com/

Follow this reporter on Twitter: @BridjesONeil.

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