Oak Park & River Forest High School Business Incubator Helps Students Flourish

Last week, three fellow Advisory Board “sharks” and I returned to Oak Park and River Forest High School for three half-days to evaluate the 16 student teams from the Business INCubatoredu at OPRF as they made year-end pitches.

There were many terrific ideas that stemmed from months of hard work, so it wasn’t a simple task. We were already familiar with the students, and the business models they were developing. In February, the four of us–restaurant owner Natasha Martinez, real estate developer Dan Moroney, business executive Jon Peppler, and myself–took three days to provide a “shark tank lite” evaluation-and-feedback go-round at that stage of student teams’ development.

Group photos of the Advisory Board “sharks” with each of the three classes from this year’s Business Incubator at OPRF High School

Along with OPRF teacher Matt Prebble, we chose four finalists last Friday afternoon: a bike pedal-clip product designed to help serious bicyclists navigate more conveniently, a line of school-spirit apparel and other products, a philanthropically focused array of accessories with artistic designs, and sets of contemporary and hip accessories that would cater to music festival-goers. 

The public was also invited to help choose a fifth “Wildcard” team at the program’s first-ever Final Pitch Event, which happens this evening at OPRF High School.

It has been inspiring and humbling to be a part of a program that helps high school students develop their entrepreneurial skills. Having volunteered as a Junior Achievement speaker for many years, I was grateful to be able to offer more ongoing, and local, support for students during such a formative time in their education. My motivation also stems from having two children wrapping up their freshman year at the high school, as well as my service on the District 200 Board of Education.

My own roots in entrepreneurship go back over 35 years, to the 8th grade. That is when I turned a 25-cent “apology” from a classmate (he had thrown my rubber ball onto the school roof during recess) into $500 in net profits by selling bubble gum and later branching into the more lucrative realm of Starburst candy sales.

In the midst of the student teams’ pitches last week, I noticed something orange on the floor near my seat. I picked it up and couldn’t help but chuckle when I read the label: it was a Starburst wrapper.

The moment felt like a scene out of a movie, complete with a flashback montage: there’s me, selling the candy out of a paper bag on the bus, in my homeroom, at my locker, throughout the hallways between periods, and points elsewhere at Furnace Brook Middle School in Marshfield, Mass.

There were no candy-sales business models among the 16 pitches from OPRF students. Instead, there were a host of hugely ambitious ideas that demonstrated ingenuity, creativity and an overarching penchant for pragmatic problem-solving.

As I told students during last week’s pitches, regardless of whether they advanced to the finals, the benefits of their experience this year will not be fully apparent for many years as they apply and hone what they have begun learning through the Business Incubator.

Already, there’s no question that the students have derived benefits that go well beyond the classroom. When students shared what they learned most from their experience, the top theme that emerged was their ability to persist through struggle–the simple, but far from easy, principle of not giving up.

My fellow “sharks” along with OPRF teacher Matt Prebble (second from left) select the finalists as we enjoy a lunch provided Natasha Martinez, owner of Mancini’s Italian Bistro.

Many thanks to my fellow sharks–Jon, Dan and Natasha–who have carved out significant blocks of time from their busy schedules and demonstrated their commitment to this next generation of leaders.

Also, kudos to the other coaches, mentors and other volunteers from the community who have likewise sown into these young men and women during this inaugural year for the business incubator at Oak Park and River Forest High School.

Interested in learning more about high school business incubators? Check out the incubator edu website.

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A Decade of Self-Employment: My Top 10 List

A Decade of Self-Employment: My Top 10 List

Today marks the 10th anniversary of my last day as an employee.

After eight years at The Courier News in Elgin, Ill. (then a Copley Newspaper), I resigned on March 26, 1999 to pursue a freelance marketing and writing path. Over the past decade, I’ve been most fortunate, with encouragement and all manners of support from my fantastic wife, Bridgett, to be able to maintain my self-employed status.

Things haven’t always worked out as I planned. In fact, it’s usually turned out even better.

Oftentimes, that is because I was willing to listen to the marketplace when it told me that it wasn’t interested in my ideas. Then, the marketplace would add, “But, hey, if you might be able to do XYZ, would you be interested?”

Almost always, whether it’s providing marketing services for a couple looking to adopt a baby girl or helping a restaurant boost its sales, my answer has been, “You bet!”

I have never applied for a job, and I have never seriously thought of doing so. My entrepreneurial streak is too strong, and the wide-ranging work has just been too fun to ever look back.

Here, then, is a Top 10 List of Self-Employment Memories, listed in no particular order, over the past 10 years.

1. From 2000 to 2004, roving around the Midwest for Time magazine in pursuit of interviews with the likes of Tiger Woods, The Smiley Face Bomber’s college buddies and basketball phenom LeBron James (as a high school senior and later during his rookie season in the NBA).

2. Covering a variety of towns and cities for the Chicago Tribune (1999-2005, with a little work thereafter). After the August 2003 birth of my twin children, Zachary and Maggie Rose, I would often type up my reports with one of them sleeping in my lap.

3. Moving my office from the living room to the second bedroom to Panera and, then, in June 2007, to my current “real office” location a few miles from home.

4. Joining the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce in October 2005 to promote my personalized story service, Your Front Page.

While the service has not quite captured the public’s imagination (yet), that first Chamber meeting led to a great six-month gig as community relations liaison for Boston Market’s healthier-food prototype experiment in River Forest.

5. In the summer of 2006, joining Oak Park Partners, a chapter of Business Networking International (BNI) whose purpose is to provide client referrals to one another.

The affiliation has surrounded me with top individuals who have not only referred numerous clients to me, but have also inspired me to develop myself professionally.

6. Realizing in late 2006 that, OK, I guess it was all right to call myself a publicist. After more than 20 years as a diehard journalist, this was no simple step. Of course, my entire Inside Edge philosophy revolves around the journalistic information-gathering and story-telling style.

7. Following a suggestion by a former editor, Scott Stone (now a Daily Herald VP) and creating a math literacy seminar for journalists, Go Figure: Making Numbers Count.

That move has sent me all around the country since 2001, training the media (usually at state press association conventions) as I share my passion for telling stories skillfully, ethically and responsibly. My next training is in eight days, at the New York Press Association convention in Saratoga Springs.

8. In October 1999, getting published in Sports Illustrated, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. The brief item on the Home Run Power Ratio, a baseball statistic I created, provided me with a much-needed confidence boost.

9. In January 2007, catching on with Five Seasons Family Sports Club as the publicist for its Northbrook and Burr Ridge clubs, and immediately helping secure global coverage for a Guinness World Record attempt.

10. Delivering phone books one day in November 1999. I got a bonus for being extra-diligent in securing signatures from recipients!

I have certainly overlooked dozens of other worthy candidates. But there’s always my Top 20 list, due for release on March 26, 2019.

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Oak Park & River Forest High School Business Incubator Helps Students Flourish