Northwest Arkansas business leaders share expertise with young entrepreneurs

by Nancy Peevy ([email protected]) 818 views 

Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Dana Davis (far right) poses with inaugural class members of the chamber’s Young Entrepreneurs Academy.

Northwest Arkansas business leaders recently shared their expertise with young entrepreneurs who ranged in age from 11 to 16, at the Young Entrepreneurs Academy’s CEO Roundtable Discussion at the Center for Collaboration in Bentonville.

The Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA), a national non-profit organization, is sponsored locally by the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce.

YEA focuses on helping students develop a product idea, conduct market research, write a business plan, pitch their idea to a panel of investors and then launch their product. Students pay $1,000 to be a part of the program, which also consists of 100 hours of classroom time.

This inaugural year for YEA NWA began in October and runs through May. Fifteen students from area middle schools and high schools make up the group this year.

The Feb. 23 CEO roundtable began with each student making a short pitch for his or her product to the group of 19 business leaders. Products pitched included a reading app using videos to make books more interesting to children; a pet bowl to keep pets from eating each other’s food; a safe embedded with smart technology; socks and leggings with pockets; a website to help high school students track volunteer hours; an eco-friendly phone charger; and a web-based network to connect senior citizens with volunteers.

During the roundtable discussion, students asked questions of the CEOs and were given practical advice. Angela Grayson, principal member and founder of Precipice IP, told the students to learn what their strengths are and where they need help, and then find people who can help them.

Several of the CEOs spoke of the challenges of being the head of a business. Brandon Ivie, president of Ivie and Associate, talked about the responsibility a CEO has to ensure job security for employees.

“Your job is for you to allow every person in your organization to sleep at night, to put food on their family’s table,” he said.

Omar Kasim, founder of Con Quesos, agreed and said the CEO has to be willing to make a decision, even when they don’t know the right answer.

“One of the things you have to understand is that action is better than inaction, so maybe the choice that you make may not be the best, but you do have to make a choice at the end of the day,” Kasim said. “Making those tough calls is very tiring because you are trying to ensure that people are being able to eat … but you have to be the one that calls that shot.”

Sean Womack, CEO and co-founder of SMACK, said when you start a company and you have been doing all the jobs, it is a challenge to allow people to do things you could do better. He said the key is to keep your hands off and train people well.

“Your job is to build a company that does the work better than you do, and that’s really hard,” Womack said.

Womack also told the students if they don’t like to solve problems, then don’t be the CEO. He said a boss once told him that being a CEO is “problems for breakfast, problems for lunch and problems for dinner.”

Jeff Amerine, principal, Startup Junkie Consulting, and moderator of the evening, told students that being an entrepreneur or a CEO means “working 100 hours a week for yourself so you don’t have to work 40 hours a week for someone else.”

When asked about major decisions they make for their company, David Lee, president and CEO of Mach 1 Financial, said he tries to be wise in choosing employees.

“I choose for character and integrity because everything else can be learned.”

Rick West, CEO and co-founder of Field Agent, said good decision-making means understanding when to say no, because even though it is tempting, you can’t say yes to everything.

“You are going to have the capacity to do two things extremely well or 10 mediocre,” he said. “The most difficult thing that you’re going to face is you’re going to have to tell people ‘no’ and you’re going to have to walk away from business.”

Lance Stokes, COO of Lauren James, agreed and said, “You want to be the first choice of a few, instead of the second or third choice of many. That takes a lot of no’s, that takes a lot of really hard conversations.” Stokes also told students that the average entrepreneur fails six or seven times and they need to learn to “fail quickly and then apply what they learned to the next opportunity.”

When asked about writing a business plan, Amerine said the most important thing was to first concentrate on finding a product that meets a need, not the business plan.

“Sixty percent of all small businesses fail because they build something that no one wants because they’re so in love with their own idea and they don’t find out what people are actually willing to pay for,” Amerine said.

West agreed and said, “You’re only as good as you invoice and collect. Everything else is a hobby.”

Leaders on the panel said they were impressed by the students.

“When someone said they were going to be 11 to 16 years old, I was skeptical because I hadn’t heard any of their pitches,” Womack said. “But the sophistication of the business ideas, the needs they were addressing and then the quality of pitches and the story-telling in all of them was really first rate.”

Other business leaders at the table included Brett Amerine, COO, Startup Junkie Consulting; Kourtney Barrett, COO and founder JUNK Brands Co.; Hunter Buwick, development associate, Specialized Real Estate Group; Abby Foster, founder and managing principal of Ahnimisha Consulting; Kalene Griffith, CEO, Visit Bentonville; Krista Hume, founder, Student Coupon Book; Meredith Lowry, patent attorney, Wright, Lindsey, Jennings; Anna Morrison, founder and CEO, Campus Concierge; Sean Morrison, president, Simplemachine; Roger Thomas, co-founder, TeleComp; and Christine Wright, SVP Walmart team, Richardson Retail.

The inaugural class is made up of the following students: Shorna Alam, Lincoln Junior High; Chasmitha Batta, NWA Classical Academy; Vedha Batta; Haas Hall Academy; Emily Byrd, Ardis Ann Middle School; Clayton Harrell, Bentonville High School; Arjun Krishna, Haas Hall Academy, Arthi Krishna, Fulbright Junior High; Zachary Mattingly, Haas Hall Academy; Taneesha Mohapatra, Haas Hall Academy; Sofie Overton, Old High Middle School, Keshian Pounds, Bentonville High School; Andrew Seay, Haas Hall Academy; Andres Villalobos, St. Vincent De Paul; and Marianna Willis, Bentonville West High School.

Applications are being accepted by Dawn Stewart ([email protected]) at the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce for the 2017/2018 YEA class. Early admission deadline is June 1, 2017. Students ranging in age from 11 to 18, from any Northwest Arkansas city, may apply.