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Contest plants seed to grow entrepreneurs

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Seventh grader at C.M. Eppes Middle, Izzy Slingerland, right, demonstrates her presentation, "The Irrigation Station" to Brad Hufford, left, and Leo Corbin, center, during the YEP (Young Entrepreneurs Pitch) Challenge at the Thomas H. Willis building Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.


By Brian Wudkwych
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, February 22, 2018

If local businesses started by local residents are the product of a growing economic ecosystem in Pitt County, the seeds were sowed on Wednesday at the Young Entrepreneur Pitch Challenge.

Brad Hufford with the Economic Development Commission described the event in those terms as he walked around East Carolina University’s Willis Building to check out business ideas from nearly 50 local middle and high school students representing five schools.

As students pitched ideas in the hopes of winning a cash prize, he said a foundation was being laid for honing entrepreneurial skills and developing a passion for business.

“The new trend is to grow your own companies here,” Hufford said “Kids and people need to know that Greenville and Pitt County are areas that support entrepreneurs.”

The Young Entrepreneur Pitch Challenge was part of a week-long effort orchestrated by local education, government and business entities. Wednesday night was the CompePITTch’n, which gave about 35 prospective entrepreneurs the chance to pitch an idea to local business leaders. The first place winner took home $6,000 in cash. Tonight at 6 p.m. at the Murphy Center, ECU students and alumni will vie for a $12,000 grand prize.

For the young students in the Willis Building, there was no shortage of ideas.

There were displays set up for solutions concerning issues in the medical field, transportation problems, a lack of playground equipment for disabled children and apps that would satisfy hunger pangs of the indecisive. One group drew up designs for an Elmhurst environmental park while another created a prototype for an automatic file cabinet.

Izabella Slingerland, a seventh grader at C.M Eppes Middle School, went so far as to design a fully-functioning irrigation station that used electrical power to run water through PVC pipes to help farmers in drought. Not every idea had a working prototype, and Slingerland planned on selling her idea for more than $400.

What originally started as a dirt sensor to gauge the water level around plants eventually turned into the impressive invention after months of work.

“I’m glad that it works and it’s not just sitting there and the water is running through it,” Slingerland said, noting that the invention was inspired by learning about struggling farmers in South Sudan.

The effort earned Slingerland the top prize in the middle school portion of the event, and she took home $150. The second- and third-place inventions earned $100 and $50, respectively.

The middle school ideas were judged based on introducing a solution to problem, identifying existing competition, demonstrating professional behavior and more criteria.

Meanwhile, the high school competition gave three finalists a chance to pitch their ideas on stage in an effort to secure the $500 grand prize.

Brenda Beltran, a student at the Pitt County Early College High School, won the cash thanks to her Whip-A-Mug idea, featuring a handle that slides into the mug for easy storage.

“I just know personally from trying to put mugs away how frustrating it can be,” she said during her pitch.

Whip-A-Mug beat out Safe Swim, a bikini bottom designed for girls on their menstrual cycle who have aversions to tampons or other related products, and the Automatic Filing Cabinet, which took second and third place, respectively. Both the runners-up were designed by Early College students.

The showcase of ideas was the end of a process that lasted months for some students. From generating ideas, to revising them, to conducting research on the market and pricing products, the work spanned both in-school activity and after-school work.

“It was so hard at times,” C.M. Eppes eighth grader Erica Acklin said. “At times I really did not want to do it but I had my friends working with me. They helped me the whole time.”

The hard work paid off for Acklin as her shirt protector idea, which featured a plastic coating for clothing, earned her second place in the middle school competition.

In all, Hufford and the panel of eight judges consisting of students at East Carolina University’s Miller School of Business saw the occasion as the hopeful start for what will potentially grow into a successful local business idea.

“The students are generating a lot of great ideas for our future economy and future society,” judge Sean Travis said. “I feel it’s a great experience for them to come out and practice their pitches and understand what they’re doing wrong so they can make this into a successful business.”

In short, the ecosystem is well maintained throughout the entrepreneurial week. The student pitch challenge is perhaps a sign of things to come, as the event has grown from five participants when it first started to nearly 50. If the growth continues, Hufford joked, they may need to rent out Minges Coliseum in the future.

For him, it is a representation of a commitment to help businesses thrive locally. The seeds now planted will have plenty of help to maybe one day sprout into something bigger.

“We’ve got a lot of partners that can take these ideas and give them education, support, financing even, to make their dreams become a real business,” Hufford said.

Contact Brian Wudkwych at bwudkwych@reflector.com or 252-329-9567 and follow @brianwudkwych on Twitter.