High school students learn entrepreneurship skills at a conference

Greenville High School students compare notes on their group project during the STRIVE! Conference at UM Jackson Avenue Center. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Mississippi — For 100 high school students in northern Mississippi, the path to owning their own business was recently boosted at the University of Mississippi.

These students spent Thursday, January 24 investing in their entrepreneurial journey at STRIVE!, one of three regional conferences aimed at developing young entrepreneurs across Mississippi. The day’s quick experiments challenged students to conduct market research, interact with local business resource providers, and practice appropriate soft skills such as communication, networking, and meal etiquette.

Held at UM’s Jackson Avenue Center, the event was sponsored by the Southern Entrepreneurship Program and hosted by McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagementt. The SEP and the McLean Institute’s Catalyze entrepreneurship and economic development initiative, or CEED, works to develop an entrepreneurial spirit among young people in Mississippi.

“The central objective of STRIVE! is to demonstrate the importance of communication skills inside and outside the business community,” said James Wilcox, director of SEP and the Center for Economic and Entrepreneurship Education within the College of Business and Economics. Development from the University of Southern Mississippi.

“By practicing these soft skills, students can walk away with a greater sense of confidence in themselves and their ability to present innovative new ideas to potential clients, partners and funders. The event also serves as a valuable networking opportunity, allowing students to put faces with the names of local business resource providers they can contact for assistance in the future.

CEED project manager JR Love said the partnership between the two universities grew out of a series of meetings he and Wilcox attended in Jackson.

“During our discussions, we realized that our two institutions had common goals to improve the state of Mississippi and equip the future young business leaders within it,” Love said. “This conference allowed us to fulfill these common objectives.

“Whether students use their innovative thinking skills to start a business or tackle community challenges, they can be agents of change for their communities.

Participating high schools included Greenville, Hernando, Itawamba County, New Hope (Columbus), and West Tallahatchie (Webb). Seated at 16 tables in groups of four to six people each, the students listened intently as Wilcox and others shared their insights.

“How much money would you need to start a business?” asked Wilcox, who was hosting the day’s events. “You may think that’s too expensive or unrealistic, but the truth is we see students starting businesses every year with as little as $10.

“Resist buying junk food for a month and instead use that money to make more money.”

Using several SEP alumni as real-life examples, Wilcox invited students to participate in the program’s annual $10 “Earn Money Now” challenge.

“It’s called bootstrapping,” he said. “Don’t think of what you have as too little. Instead, think about what you can do now with what you have. Take advantage of it. Cultivate it. But start with what you have.

Panelists Holly Kelly (left), Tyler Hill and Gant Boone share their business expertise with students at the STRIVE! Conference. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Following Wilcox’s keynote presentation, representatives from Oxford University Bank, Mechanics Bank, North Mississippi Enterprise, Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation and Mississippi Small Business Development Center participated at a round table. Questions discussed included what high school students can do to grow their networks, how to make their social media accounts more professional, and how to start saving and investing money.

The students were then given a marketing challenge to create an MVP – a scaled-down version of a full-scale business idea – for a cafe. Participants at each table received a box with an instruction sheet, a T-shirt and a set of markers. Wilcox asked them to read and follow the instructions to create vision, value and voice for their MVP.

After lunch, each team submitted their t-shirt design and presented a 30-second pitch showcasing their particular vision. The judges for the event were three Ole Miss students: Elena Bauer, CEED Innovation Fellow and law student from Germany; AK Burress, CEED Innovation Researcher and Water Valley Pharmacy Student; and Adam Franco, CEED innovation researcher and public policy student from Birmingham, Alabama.

The winners of the challenge were:

  • First Place – High School Students Hernando Raiven Booze, Dominique Cheeks, Nigeria Hibbler, Raven Payton and Dara Tuggle
  • Second Place – New Hope High School students Emma Alexander, Emma Blankenship, Micaela Hudgins and Kenzie Deason
  • Third Place – New Hope High School students Amia Hill, Rotrik Morris, Makayla Williams, Kevon Brown, Shikyra Minor, Aubri Bouldes and Taylor Jackson

Katie Naron, Lecturer in Teacher Education at UM school of educationdiscussed the importance of etiquette with conference attendees.

Several students spoke of the specific benefits they derived from the conference.

“I really found the information about the importance of good communication skills helpful,” said Taylor Jackson, a senior at New Hope. “I would like to own my own photography business one day. I now realize that I can do it if I start small and work really hard.

Itawamba County High School students Chase Ross (left) and Raina Ratliff discuss the best way to pitch their group’s idea for a coffee shop. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Itawamba County senior Raina Ratliff said she benefited from the advice on networking.

“I want to own a bakery and realize that I’ll have to build good business relationships to achieve my goal,” Ratliff said. “I’ll start by selling cookies at bake sales, but the goal is to move into a product line with more expensive items, like cakes.”

Entrepreneurship course instructors from participating secondary schools said they were pleased to see the principles they taught their students being taken up by business professionals.

“What I heard today will definitely strengthen my program,” said Glenda Gooden of West Tallahatchie. “It also gives them the opportunity to pitch their own business ideas and possibly find ways to secure start-up funds for themselves.”

Kali Harris of New Hope High School agreed.

“It’s just great to see them all so committed to what’s being presented,” she said. “There has been a wealth of knowledge provided here today which, if applied, should help them move forward into their own bright future.”

Established in 2007, SEP has served over 6,000 high school students through its annual series of regional conferences and regional competitions. The last two regional STRIVEs! conferences are scheduled for January 30 and February 6 in Jackson and Hattiesburg, respectively.

Next up in this year’s SEP series is THRIVE!, described as Mississippi’s “Shark Tank” event for high school students. The top 20 winners of these regional qualifiers will move on to the SEP state competition in May.

The SEP program and the McLean Entrepreneurial Leadership Program have common goals of working with Mississippi high school students to develop a set of entrepreneurial skills.

The Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation supports the program with a generous financial gift that enables Ole Miss CEED students to promote entrepreneurship and economic development in Mississippi, Love said.

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