High school students learn about business at fourth annual camp

It was an afternoon filled with business appointments, "elevator pitches" and success stories.

The fourth annual 2012 Entrepreneurship Camp, held Friday, April 20, in the Muenster University Center on the University of South Dakota campus, brought students from Vermillion and Dakota Valley high schools together with local educators and business leaders.

Steve Howe, executive director of the Vermillion Area Chamber of Commerce and Development Company, addresses local high school students at Friday’s camp. (Photo by David Lias)

At the end of the three-hour exercise, students came away with a better idea of what it takes to turn a good business idea into reality. And the adult participants, already steeped in the world of business development, walked away with something extra, too.

"We quizzed the students afterwards, to see how they liked it," said Steve Howe, executive director of the Vermillion Area Chamber of Commerce and Development Company. "They all seemed to have a real favorable response to it.

"As much as the students enjoyed it, I also think the mentors enjoyed it every bit as much," he said. "I think it was also nice for the people who are involved with the Yankton angel fund (Two Bridges Capital) to come over and be a part of it and give them a little bit of practice, so they got something out of the camp as well."

The goal of the program is to introduce students at the high school level to the concepts of entrepreneurship and financing through the use of case studies of actual South Dakota businesses.

The 25 high school students who participated were randomly chosen to be either entrepreneurs, who met in business groups, or financiers, who also met in groups to develop lending criteria.

The process for the business groups was filled with making a case study of their businesses to determine the type of financing that would be most appropriate. They also had to create elevator pitches and present their business ideas to the finance groups in hopes of getting funding.

The finance teams, in turn, had to decide what type of businesses they wanted to invest in and at what terms.

Speakers at the beginning of the camp included Nick Cerny, assistant director of admissions at USD, Jeff Eckhoff, Small Business Development director at USD, and Kelsey Schmidt, a USD business student currently involved in the university's Entrepreneurship Program.

She gave the students an example of an "elevator pitch" used, for example, to convince financiers to invest in a company.

Mentors included Ben Hanten, who is involved with Two Bridges Capital, LLC, of Yankton, Eckhoff, Mel Ustad of the South Dakota Governor's Office of Economic Development, and John Brown of the Small Business Administration office in Sioux Falls.

"Everyone who served as a mentor had real-world experience related to the groups that they were mentoring," Howe said.

The students in the entrepreneur groups had to fulfill nearly every goal that a real-life businessperson would have to fulfill – from making appointments and determining what types of financing would best work, to developing elevator pitches.

"Often times, in traditional business classes, you're taught how to put together a business plan," Howe said. "It's pretty basic stuff – what type of business are you dealing with, what's your product, what market are you going to sell to – and that's what students get often at both the high school and college levels.

"What doesn't get talked about is once you have your business plan, what do you do next? How do you get financed? What we want to do is expose students to the concept that there are other ways of getting financing than just your traditional banking system, and that, depending on your business, you might be better suited to different types of financing," he said. "We just wanted to give students a quick overview of what it is really like to get financing."

Howe is certain that there will be at minimum, a fifth entrepreneurship camp hosted in Vermillion next year. It is an exercise, however, that has the potential to spread.

"The goal is to get it into all of the schools in the region and not just be a Vermillion thing," he said. "There's no reason that it can't run in Yankton. We've done it for four years, and we're ready to say to other schools, 'Here's how we do it … maybe you can run with it.' And each teacher that we've had attend this has really liked it a lot."

Yankton students participated in the camp last year, but weren't able to attend last week's event. Yankton High's economics teacher, Brady Muth, however, traveled to Vermillion to participate as a mentor.

Other mentors included Gerald Gramm of the state Department of Education; Ben Hanten of Two Bridges Capital, LLC, Yankton; Jeff Eckhoff, Small Business Development Center, USD; Jeff VanDenHul, DVHS marketing teacher; Dan Specht, Vision Real Estate, Yankton; Mel Ustad, Governor's Office of Economic Development; Joanne Ustad, VHS business teacher; Sue Stoll, Small Business Development Center, Yankton; and John Brown, Small Business Administration, Sioux Falls.

"We got great feedback from the instructors from Dakota Valley, who said that this was of great value to their students," Howe said. "This camp also brings together the education community and the economic development community, and that's a good partnership. We'd like to see this in school districts across the state.

"It's a valuable experience for both the kids and the mentors," he said.

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