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BUILD preps students for entrepreneurship, college

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
BUILD preps students for entrepreneurship, college
Entrepreneurship students from Charlestown High School receive their prize money for winning the BUILD Youth Business Plan Competition. (L-R): Jeff Glass, board chair for BUILD’s Boston local advisory board, with Dream Team members Kevin Melara, VP Manufacturing and Design; Romane Sorrell, CFO; Julian Medina, COO; Malik Alfred, VP Marketing and Sales; and Cristhian Belisario, CEO. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

“We all have dreams, don’t we?”

That’s how a group of entrepreneurs-in-training called Dream Team grabbed the audience’s attention at the recent BUILD Youth Business Plan Competition.

The five Charlestown High School ninth graders faced an auditorium packed with parents, teachers, local businesspeople and scores of teenagers, many dressed for success in crisp shirts and ties or skirts and jackets. The competition, held June 2 on the Northeastern University campus, was the final hurdle of their first year with BUILD, a nonprofit that uses entrepreneurship training to engage at-risk high school students and propel them toward college.

“People lose track of their dreams,” continued Cristhian Belisario, Dream Team’s 14-year-old CEO. “We’re going to fix that.”

He and his teammates then outlined the “wow factor” and cost analysis of the product they’ve designed: an inspirational iPhone case, made of bamboo and customizable to have the purchaser’s own dream etched into it.

They also faced a panel of judges, who watched intently and asked tough questions. These judges would determine which of the final four student teams won $1,000 in cash along with $500 in seed money to help launch their product.

BUILD was founded in 1999 in the San Francisco Bay area. The operation expanded to Washington, D.C. in 2008 and launched in Boston last September. In its first year here, the program served 102 students at four Boston public high schools: Charlestown High School, Another Course to College, Jeremiah E. Burke High School and the Community Academy of Science and Health (CASH).

The program is heavy on entrepreneurship training in the freshman year, and gradually builds up its college prep focus, adding academic tutoring, college tours, test prep and help with college and financial aid applications as the students progress through high school.

Nationally, BUILD boasts impressive statistics. 100 percent of its seniors are accepted to college; 95 percent are in minority groups underrepresented in college; 80 percent are of the first generation in their family to attend college.

Ayele Shakur, regional executive director for BUILD Boston, said she witnessed positive results in Boston even in the first year.

“As early as November, we could see changes, with students becoming more confident, and better at public speaking,” Shakur said. “The journey from September to June is like night and day. We have students who never thought of themselves going to college now talking about colleges and what they’re going to study.”

Shakur explained that BUILD selects the students most at risk of failing or dropping out. Several of this year’s participants were repeating ninth grade. One student already has a baby of her own.

“We tell them, stick with BUILD and you’ll make it,” Shakur said.

She attributes the program’s impact to its dual focus on entrepreneurial ventures and college planning.

“It’s all about real-world learning,” she said. “They wonder, how is school going to help me in my life? And we’re able to say to them, in order for you to do the financials, you’ll have to do those math calculations; you need writing skills to write that 20-page business plan. They see how success in school will transfer to success in life.”

At the competition, students on stage were mature and poised, but adolescent energy dominated the room. Teens clapped and whooped for their friends and classmates. The most deafening cheers and whistles came when their teachers stood on stage. Hugh Coleman of Burke High, Chris Mee of Another Course to College, Darien Cooper of CASH, and Edson Cardoso of Charlestown High were acknowledged for their work teaching the five-day-a-week entrepreneurship class that all BUILD students take in the first year.

Cardoso, who taught the Dream Team members and 20 other participants this year, has no trouble seeing a connection between training kids to start a business and encouraging them to go to college.

“Entrepreneurship gives them that hook, that motivation, to stay in school,” he said, speaking by telephone after the event. “They can think outside the box, come up with some creative ideas. For some, (entrepreneurship) is their highest grade – but then they have hope they can get good grades in other courses.”

In all, 20 teams of entrepreneurs pitched their products in the daylong competition. Products included customized eyeglass clip-ons, a pen with a built-in MP3 player, inspirational T-shirts and cleaning gloves with built-in sponges and soap.

By afternoon, the field was narrowed to one team from each school. At the end, after each team presented its product design, projected revenue and marketing plan, the Dream Team took first prize. The other three finalist teams were Convert-a-Casers from Another Course to College, who pitched a backpack/courier bag combo; Muzentil Media of Burke High, with the MP3 player/pen; and Team Pro from CASH, with a unique customizable pillowcase.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino was one of the event’s speakers. He urged the kids to work hard in high school and college and return to Boston to start their careers.

“We need you,” Menino told them. “We can use your ideas in our Innovation District on the waterfront. Young entrepreneurs there are doing what you’re doing today.”

While the top finishers won some extra cash to divide among themselves, all the teams will continue to develop their products. In year two, they’ll move on to manufacturing, financing and selling. Some could begin to see actual profits.

Tanisha Amazan, 16,  is VP of manufacturing and design for Convert-A-Casers. Though her team didn’t come out at the very top, she is thrilled about the experience BUILD has given her, including developing the look of the product and logo, and the intensive practice in public speaking.

“I’m a shy person, but I’ve learned to overcome that,” she said, speaking after the competition was over. “BUILD is an eye opener. It’s hard to describe the amazing opportunity. Mr. Mee encouraged me to try my best and get through it. My family is really excited, really proud of me.”

Each BUILD team is assigned a pair of mentors who meet with the students one afternoon each week to brainstorm, help create a marketing plan and coach them on their presentations.

Shonak Patel, an entrepreneur and co-founder of two education-related ventures, is one of the Dream Team’s mentors.

He said the biggest things student entrepreneurs have to learn are professionalism, consistency, and presentation skills — and he is in awe of his team’s progress.

“To think that in ninth grade, they can present like that, it’s amazing,” he said, speaking over the post-event hubbub in the auditorium. “That is such a life skill, going forward. And they now realize that practice is so important. It has been awesome to see their confidence develop.”

This fall, the Boston program will double in size as the current students move into year two and a new set of at-risk freshmen begins the journey. One of the current challenges for BUILD-Boston, Shakur noted, is to recruit enough mentors to match with the new teams.

Patel expressed great satisfaction with his involvement with the BUILD students.

“It’s a huge commitment, but what you get out of it is more than you put in,” he said. “You build a real connection. They need it. I need it, too.”

In a way, his words mirrored the spirit of the Dream Team’s closing question to the audience and judges at the Youth Business Plan Competition:

“Can you help us achieve our dreams, while we help remind you of yours?”