Young entrepreneurs pitch products, hear from industry veterans

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 1,683 views 

YEA! pitch contest winner Andres Villalobos shows Rick Kirk of InBev Anheuser Busch a 3D printed prototype of his product, an eco-friendly phone charger called Blitz Cube.

Members of Northwest Arkansas Young Entrepreneurs Academy competed in a pitch contest on April 5 at the Center for Collaboration in Bentonville.

Eighth-grader Andres Villalobos of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Rogers was chosen as the winner for his product, an eco-friendly phone-charging innovation called Blitz Cube, and will go on to the YEA! national semifinals in Rochester, N.Y., where he has the possibility to earn seed funding and scholarship money.

YEA! is a nonprofit organization that allows students in grades 6-12 to have help in generating business ideas and launching their own companies. This is its first year in Northwest Arkansas. The NWA chapter is operated by the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce. The first class started in October and concludes in May. During that time, the students have come up with business ideas, conducted market research and written business plans.

The pitch contest was the first opportunity for the students to sell their ideas to a panel of investors, including Dana Davis, CEO of the chamber; Alex Patterson of What’s Ahead in Bentonville; James Smith, market president, chief lending officer and board of director member for the Bank of Gravett; Rick Kirk, global director of key accounts for Anheuser-Busch Inbev; and Graydon Rochelle, assistant vice president and business banking manager for Arvest Bank.

Besides the Blitz Cube, other ideas presented from the group included a website that tracks volunteer experience, a service company that does uniform laundry and other tasks for traveling youth sports teams, a bread company, a bowl that protects pets’ food and a smart safe.

Students pay $1,000 to be a part of the YEA! program.

Eric Howerton, CEO and co-founder of WhyteSpyder in Fayetteville, and Bill Akins, chief client officer at Rockfish in Rogers, served as guest speakers for the pitch event, and each offered the students advice on entrepreneurship.

Howerton said, “You’ve got to find your niche.”

He pointed to how his marketing company hit its stride working with Wal-Mart Stores and its suppliers. Howerton and Akins touted the importance of outside-of-the-box thinking. Howerton shared a famous quote from Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Akins emphasized the need to adapt, specifically in retail: “It used to be about fighting over market share, now it’s about managing disruption. It used to be about well-stocked shelves, now it’s about infinite shelves and free shipping.”

YEA! was founded in 2004 at the University of Rochester. The program serves thousands of students in 168 communities across the U.S. The NWA YEA! program is the only one in Arkansas.

Other members of the first NWA class are Shorna Alam of Lincoln Junior High, Chasmitha Batta of NWA Classical Academy, Emily Byrd of Ardis Ann Middle School, Clayton Harrell and Keshian Pounds of Bentonville High School, Arthi Krishna of Fulbright Junior High, Sofie Overton of Old High Middle School, Marianna Willis of Bentonville West High School, and Andrew Seay, Vedha Batta, Arjun Krishna, Zachary Mattingly and Taneesha Mohapatra, all of Haas Hall Academy.

Program director Dawn Stewart said she looks at the program as a boost to business by introducing the prospect of entrepreneurship early in life.

She is now accepting applications for the 2017-18 YEA! group. Early admission deadline is June 1. She can be reached at [email protected].