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.

Involvement is Inspiring–and Humbling

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.

More Benefits to Come in the Future

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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