Young entrepreneurs present businesses to local sharks

By Valerie Shelton

Business partners approach the podium, anxious to share information about their new product with a panel of potential investors. Their up-and-coming product is HydroSolve, a digital gadget that measures the moisture in a house plant’s soil and waters it when needed. HydroSolve has already piqued the interest of one nursery, but what will the investors think?

This is a typical scene you might see on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” but HydroSolve is actually one of several Clovis businesses presenting their products to a panel of local judges today. As for the business owners, they are all high school students taking part in the Clovis Chamber of Commerce’s Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) program.

YEA! is a national program that started in 2004 in Rochester, NY, and has gradually made its way to the West Coast. The goal of YEA! is to help young entrepreneurs in middle school and high school start their own businesses.

Students in the program not only learn how to create a business plan, but become official business owners with state business licenses. They also have opportunities to earn outside funding for their business, as well as scholarship money if they do well at regional and national competitions.

Clovis Chamber of Commerce YEA! Program Manager Fran Blackney said the City of Clovis was the first in California to offer the program.

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce came on board with the YEA! program in 2009 and in 2012 they contacted us, recommending that Clovis be the first city in the state to offer the program,” Blackney said. “We are so flattered that the U.S. Chamber picked us out of the whole state.”

Last year, 11 local high school students participated in the Clovis Chamber’s YEA! program. This year, Blackney said the program has grown with 22 students participating. The students, she said, meet weekly to do market research, create a business plan and presentations, and learn practical skills like how to do taxes and fill out government forms.

Of the 22 students in the program, 13 are presenting their businesses tonight at 6 p.m. at the City of Clovis Council Chambers.

Three students—River Alexander, Hannah McKay and Rohan Mishra—are introducing the Hydro Solve product.

“I came up with this idea at home when I noticed all of my plants were dying,” Alexander said. “I decided to make a product that notifies you via SMS to water your plants. From that idea, it evolved into what it is now where the product just goes ahead and feeds the plants for you.”

Hydro Solve is one of six businesses being presented this evening. The other student-run businesses are Chameleon Grips, Vitalean Bakery, CEAL, Viva La Fitness and K-bear Cares.

Chameleon Grips, a business that creates decorative tennis and golf grips, is run by a team of four: Jessica Chillingerian, Violette Ballecer, Alyssa Mellilo and Sarahi Nunez. Grips have already been manufactured in a Hawaiian print and several local high school and college tennis players have purchased them in packs of three for $10. The team says a social media campaign has propelled the product forward.

“We created Chameleon Grips to help tennis players stay fashion forward and promote their individuality and spunk on the court,” Mellilo said.

CEAL, a company that sells stylish clothing that fits within the Clovis Unified School District dress code, is also off to a great start with the Buchanan High School student store already agreeing to carry CEAL’s tank tops and shorts for girls and T-shirts and hoodies for boys. CEAL co-owners Emily Laing and CJ Harris said the idea sparked from their desire to have more clothing options that they know meet the dress code requirements at their school.

Two YEA! businesses are run by single proprietors.

Meagan Vitale, a passionate baker with an Italian heritage, is starting Vitalean Bakery, which will sell custom made cakes and cupcakes as well as classic Italian pastries like cannolis, biscotti and macaroons.

“I want to bring an Italian bakery like you see in New York to the Central Valley,” Vitale said.

Kelsey Ewing has started the only non-profit business in the bunch. Her business, K-Bear Cares, will create custom teddy bears to be donated to foster youth, animal shelters and the elderly. Those who order a bear from K-Bear Cares can create their own back story for each stuffed animal so each one is unique. Some of the bears, from the non-profit’s new beginnings line, will be made from gently used, like-new stuffed animals. Those in the non-profit’s newborn line will be brand new.

“K-Bear Cares stemmed from my devotion to helping animals, children, the elderly, foster youth and impoverished populations,” Ewing said.

Each business going before tonight’s panel is asking for $800 to help launch or promote their product. Blackney said some will get more and some will get less depending on how local investors evaluate each business plan and presentation.

Blackney said the team with the best business plan and presentation will be chosen to go to the regional competition in Arizona. The regional winner will get to go to the national competition in New York, where teams compete for tens of thousands of dollars of scholarship money.

Some students may not go far with their business, Blackney said, but every student in the program will learn practical skills not typically taught in high school classrooms.

“We teach the hard part of business, which is creating business plans, but I also teach the soft skills that will benefit them for life, like how to interview for a job,” Blackney said. “One parent told me the best thing her son learned from the program last year was how to be on time. These are valuable skills that aren’t stressed in school and they will help these kids go far in their career, whether they own their own business or work for someone else.”