High school students cultivate their business savvy at weekend entrepreneurial boot camp

A safety device that combines the simplicity of a whistle with the functionality of an app won first place at the Virginia Entrepreneurial Challenge this weekend.

Fifty high school students participated in this year’s challenge, which took place Oct. 15–16 at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business. The students worked with college students and professors to learn how to think and act like entrepreneurs. After identifying a need in the community, the 11 teams came up with ways to meet that need and developed a preliminary business plan using guides from event partner Junior Achievement of Central Virginia.

“The whole weekend was workshop style,” said Jay Markiewicz, executive director of Entrepreneurship Programs in the VCU School of Business. “Starting with [a community] problem and who that customer might be, each team started with ideas of what that solution might look like. … The commonwealth high school student participants were extremely impressive — they worked quickly through ambiguity and shined during the competition with creative and valuable solutions.”

The teams closed out the challenge by pitching their businesses in a “Shark Tank”-style competition. Gov. Terry McAuliffe presented awards to the top three teams, all of which received a cash prize to pursue their business plan. In addition, the panel of nine community judges was so impressed with the presentations that its members sponsored additional prize money and awards on the spot.

“I talk everyday about building the new Virginia economy,” McAuliffe said. “We build it through entrepreneurship and innovation. … To all the entries here, I appreciate you being here. I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life. I started my first business when I was 14. … It got to be a successful company.

“It doesn’t always work out that way. But you know what? If you’re an entrepreneur and it doesn’t work out, dust yourself off and get back in the arena. … Take risks, take chances. It doesn’t always work out. [But] the key is, you learn something from your mistakes and get right back up there again. … Ultimately if you keep trying, things are going to go your way.”

School of Business Dean Ed Grier called the program, now in its second year, tremendous.

It gives the students exactly that they need — that practical experience. 

“Entrepreneurship is something we talk about all the time,” he said. “This makes it real for [the students] and it fits in nicely with our strategic plan. We’re going to drive the future of business through the power of creativity. It takes entrepreneurship and creativity, so this is exactly it. It gives the students exactly what they need — that practical experience. But more so than that, they don’t get this opportunity often.”

Last year, Danielle Fife, program coordinator for the management department who works closely with the entrepreneurship program, served as a mentor for the winning team. One huge benefit of the program, she said, is students realize they don’t have to wait till they are in their 30s or 40s to start a business.

The students’ excitement grew as their ideas began to solidify, Fife said.

“It started to ramp up as they talked about ideas. … As a result, the more they started putting their ideas together, they got excited about it. … And then everyone went home and brainstormed and came back with their ideas.

“To see the transition … to ‘I want to make a difference’ is amazing.”

The members of this year’s winning team wanted to ensure that their idea could make a difference in keeping everyone safe. On one hand, while traditional safety devices such as whistles and pepper spray are easy to use, an attacker could try to take them from you. But on the other hand, apps that allow people to report suspicious activity don’t keep them safe in the moment of an attack.

“So what we tried to do is find a solution between the two,” said Ivan Jackson from Midlothian High School. “One between the ease of use, a whistle, and the functionality of an app. And that’s what we came up with Allert.”

Venture Creation University

Venture Creation University is VCU’s strategy for ensuring all students are exposed to innovation and entrepreneurship and have access to entrepreneurial pathways. To find out more about this effort, and to learn about innovation and entrepreneurial programs offered at VCU, visit

The aptly named Allert ensures safety for all. Allert is a small device that has simple technology, including a light, speaker and GPS. When activated the light can be used as a flashlight and the speaker will activate a loud, unnerving sound. The device can be worn on your wrist or as a necklace or it can be put in your pocket or clipped to your backpack.

“But what sets us apart from every other company in business is that we’re getting the community involved,” Jackson said. “Other users will receive notifications if they’re nearby the activated device” and could potentially come to the aid of the victim. “Sometimes it takes the people around you to stop that attack.”

Aakash Kundla, a VCU MBA student, served as team mentor, while Evan Thoresen, a student in the VCU School of Business Entrepreneurship, was team captain. Making the winning venture even more impressive, Markiewicz said, is that the group, comprising Jackson, Olivia Buchanan of Atlee High School and Bradley Heath of Open High School, was an open enrollment team, meaning they didn’t know each other before Saturday morning at 9 a.m. when they were assigned to the team.

The team members want the device to be accessible to all and priced the Allert at $50. However, they noted, they still want to make money and decided the best way to do that is through Allert accessories such as different colored bands.

“We want to make it affordable no matter your taste,” Buchanan said, “but we also want our users to want to use the product.”


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