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Accepting The Challenge: About 40 Students Show Interest in Pilot Innovation Program

3-23-18 - Contact: Zack Plair
The Dispatch
March 23, 2018 11:05:10 AM

Jeffrey Rupp took only 20 copies of the entry form to Thursday's interest meeting for the first Oktibbeha County Innovation Challenge. Before he arrived, he thought he might have wasted paper.

As it happened, he needed about twice that number.

A crowd of more than 60 -- including roughly 40 students along with parents, teachers and school administrators -- crammed into the lobby of Glo's headquarters on East Lampkin Street. All sought to know more about the pilot program geared toward harvesting the entrepreneurial spirit from Starkville public and private school students, grades 6-12.

"I'm absolutely blown away by this response," said Rupp, outreach director for the Mississippi State University Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach that is collaborating with The Partnership in Starkville for the program. "I'm so tickled that all of you came out."

Students who ultimately decide to participate in the Innovation Challenge -- which International Paper is sponsoring -- must develop a marketable idea or prototype for a chance to win a grand prize of $500 or scholarships to MSU's entrepreneurship summer camp.

Rupp said participants can work alone or in groups, and ideas must be submitted by March 29. From those ideas, he said judges will select finalists to come to MSU's E-Center on April 20, where each individual or group will work directly with a MSU student entrepreneur to develop design and marketing strategies for their endeavors.

On April 28, the finalists must pitch their ideas to a judges' panel in a "Shark Tank" setting -- as if they were trying to get the panel to invest -- and winners will be selected.

"They will have to explain the need for their idea and how they think it can make money," Rupp said.

Developing ideas

Students arrived at Glo Thursday at varying stages of interest.

Some, like Armstrong Middle School eighth grader April Guo-Yue, already had a sellable idea percolating -- though she was deliberately careful not to share too many details too soon. She said she'd be working with a group.

"We're thinking of something in gardening products," she said. "We're striving for more recycling and promoting 'going green' around the world."

Her AMS classmate, Amy Zhang, who moved to Starkville from Iowa last year, doesn't yet have a tangible idea. But once she develops one, she's sure she has the skills to sell it.

"When I lived in Iowa, I went to summer camps to learn about marketing and advertising," Zhang said. "I'm interested in seeing how I can use that knowledge in (the Innovation Challenge)."

Beckett Lesley, a Starkville Academy sixth grader, was one of the youngest there. Mainly, he said, he wants to participate in the MSU entrepreneurship summer camp, but he looks forward to using the Innovation Challenge to prepare.

"I want to learn a little bit about what it's like to have a company," Lesley said. "(What I do know is) not all inventions are successful. If my (first one) isn't, I think I'd be ready for that."

Critical thinking

Glo, owned by MSU graduate and Columbus native Hagan Walker, is a testament to first inventions that did succeed. For students on Thursday, he demonstrated the drink light -- which started as a friend's class project -- that propelled him to turn down an engineering job at Tesla Motors and instead pursue his entrepreneurial dreams.

Now, his drink lights and other products sell all over the country.

Those kinds of examples, coupled with today's educational philosophy, helps inspire a younger generation already turned toward creating its future, said Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District Superintendent Eddie Peasant.

"We talk a lot about critical thinking and problem solving in our classrooms," said Peasant, who also attended Thursday's meeting. "This turnout, I think, is a testament to what this generation wants, which is real-life, hands-on learning opportunities."

The Partnership CEO Scott Maynard agreed. And although this year's challenge is only for Oktibbeha County students, its success could lead to expanding the program to Clay and Lowndes students next year.

"I think it's amazing to see this many students in sixth through 12th grade who have enough foresight to think, 'I have a business idea that I want to bring to fruition,' and are interested in learning what that process looks like," Maynard said.

Adult support also will be crucial to the challenge's success, Rupp added.

"Beyond the number of kids, what really impresses me are the teachers and parents who came," Rupp said. "(Their support) is what will make this work."

Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.

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