If you didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven for thinking you just walked into an episode of “Shark Tank.”
But unlike the show, the investors weren’t looking to break hearts, they were hoping to kick-start futures.
Twelve Clovis and Fresno students, or CEOs, rather, appeared last week before a panel of investors to pitch their businesses, in hopes of turning their dreams into reality.
The forum hall at Clovis Community College was bustling with nerves and excitement from both parents and students. Even the members of the investor panel were buzzing with positive energy.
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The Young Entrepreneurs Academy, or YEA! for short, is a nine-month program that guides students ages 12 to 18 through the process of developing their own businesses. From conception to the final product, YEA! aims to develop young entrepreneurs.
From clothing companies to nonprofit efforts to ride-share apps, the 10 businesses presenting were as diverse as their young CEOs. Their inspirations were often just as interesting as the businesses they developed.
One of the students, 16-year-old Christopher Lee from San Joaquin Memorial High School, is the founder and CEO of Civil Disobedience, a street wear company inspired by Henry David Thoreau.
“It all started when I read ‘Civil Disobedience’,” Lee said. “Even though his book was written so long ago, his ideals matched up with mine, and so I built the whole concept of my brand off of his book and the message of his book.”
Mayra Stone, the Clovis YEA! program director, hopes that this program doesn’t just help the students involved, but also the Central Valley in general.
“We’re trying to better our students,” Stone said. “Hopefully they’ll plant some roots here in the Valley, so they can open up businesses and bring more business to the Valley.”
The students were excited for the opportunity to put themselves out there and gain real world savvy.
“It’s been a really good experience, we’ve learned a lot about business, and the real world,” said 15-year-old Tarn Nagra, from Clovis North High school who is the co-founder and co-CEO of NoChlo!, a new filtered water bottle.
“It showed us how hard it was to start a business,” said 15-year-old Taleen Cochran, also from Clovis North, and co-founder and co-CEO of NoChlo! “We’ve written up entire business plans, we’ve given presentations, we’ve practiced elevator speeches, so it’s interesting to see what it’s like in the real world.”
Students were given five minutes to pitch their business to a panel of investors that included Kathleen Schroeder, president and CEO of Sierra Specialty Insurance, Inc.; Lydia Shaw, executive vice president of Community Banking at Central Valley Community Bank; Allison Ruiz, store manager of Smart & Final; and Norma Ramirez, marketing team lead at Sam’s Club in Fresno.
After the young entrepreneurs made their pitches, investors were allowed three questions. Once all the businesses were presented, the investors deliberated over how to divide the $6,000 investment money and who would represent the Central Valley in the Saunders Scholar competition, a national counterpart to the local investors panel.
“It’s exciting to see kids putting in, and not just expecting everything to be handed to them,” Schroeder said. “How can you not get excited about this?”
The grand winner of the night was Scarvellous, an accessory business whose CEO Vinita Raj and CFO Varun Raj, 15-year-old twins from Clovis North, were selected to represent the Central Valley at the national Saunders Scholar competition.
During their pitch, Vinita Raj and Varun Raj commanded the room as if they were already multibillionaires. They’re charming and precocious, and they know it. Despite their young age, they can talk shop with the best of them, and handily impressed the investors panel. Their handle on the business world is part of the reason they’re being sent to the national competition.
Their business idea, Scarvellous, was almost as impressive as their presentation. The scarves sold by Scarvellous are adorned with jewelry and meant to be worn multiple ways. Available in a variety of culturally diverse designs, Scarvellous seems like the kind of thing one might find in a high-end department store, not from the minds of two charismatic teenagers.
It’s hard to believe that they joined the program on a whim.
“We actually got an email invitation from one of our school counselors,” Vinita Raj said. “We decided it was a great opportunity to display our passion, which is displaying diverse culture.”
They also had positive things to say about their “shark tank”-style pitch.
“It was a great experience presenting,” Varun Raj said, “We’ve never actually presented our business before so for us this is new, but at the same time it was great.”
Though Vinita Raj had to overcome her jitters, she was ultimately glad for the chance to present.
“Initially, as we went up there it was nerve-wracking, but as we started telling them about our business, we realized that we know a lot about this,” she said.