Mary Katherine Murphy
Businesses owned by Scotland County students were given their first monetary backing at the Young Entrepreneurs’ Academy investor panel this week.
The panel served as the zenith of sorts for the program, which began in November with weekly classes. The academy is administered and sponsored in part by the Laurinburg-Scotland County Area Chamber of Commerce.
On Tuesday evening in the Morris Morgan Theatre at St. Andrews University, a panel of six local investors screened presentations made by the 15 middle and high school students enrolled in YEA. Investors pledged a total of $4,200 to the eight businesses, some of them partnerships of two or three students.
The panel was comprised of Bob Bell, human resources director for Laurinburg, Chris DeCerbo of Pilkington, John Horne of the Curtis Foundation, Dr. Cammie Hunt of UNC-Pembroke, David McNeill of Progress Energy, and Barry Ryan of the NC Rural Center.
Each business had six minutes to present a business idea and financing plan, following by up to three questions from the panel.
“My idea is Forgiven Clothing, it’s a Christian T-shirt idea with phrases and prayers,” said Brandon Beckwith, a freshman at Scotland High School. “We’re going to present it to the investor panel and they’re going to invest money into us - we’re going to ask them for an investment and they’re going to decide who they want to invest in.”
Students pulled inspirations from every corner of their lives to formulate their business ideas.
“I want them to know how involved we are in our churches and how church involvement inspired us to do our business,” said Jalen Poole, an eighth grade student at Sycamore Lane Middle School and CFO of Forgiven Clothing. “I’m a little nervous, but overall I think we’ll do pretty well. We’ve put a lot of effort and hard work into it, so we’re hoping for the best.”
For some of the younger students, the panel was their first major experience in giving a presentation before a large audience.
“I’m a little afraid of embarrassing myself by saying the wrong thing and falling off stage,” said Mahalia Rhett, a sixth grade student at Sycamore Lane. Rhett presented her business, Pretty Princess Parties, with Hannah Ammons, a Scotland High junior.
Jazzmin Williams, a Scotland High junior and CEO of Foolery Jewelry, presented her costume jewelry company with the assistance of seventh grade Carver Middle School student Gwen’dea Rogers.
“She really surprised me because she’s really shy, so she stepped out of her box today,” Williams said of Rogers after their presentation. “I think it went pretty well – we could have done better, and maybe slowed down a little on my speech, but nothing’s ever perfect.”
Students carefully calculated each second of the six minutes allotted for their presentations, but were still susceptible to a last-minute case of anxiety.
“We definitely had it all planned out,” said Abigail Tremblay. “We had speech cards and we had been practicing day in and day out, so we were all prepared for it, but standing up there seeing our investors, these people who could possibly be funding what could carry us through our lives, was nerve-wracking nonetheless.”
Tremblay, a Scotland High sophomore, was the evening’s first presenter. Her business, QR IdentifyMe, will manufacture cards that can be read by a smartphone’s QR code reader and linked to a secure database of saved documents and information.
“It was terrifying being up there honestly; I had to go first so I was a little nervous about it,” Tremblay said. “The panel, they were great, they were very nice about it. Some of the questions they asked kind of threw you off a little bit so you had to step back and think about it, but I think I did all right.”
The panelists’ top pledge, $1,300, went to Southeastern Biochar, a one-woman company headed by Scotland High sophomore Anna Lisa Ciarrocca.
Tremblay’s QR IdentifyMe was awarded $700, while Electrik Lenz, a photography business operated by Essie Canada and Scotland High senior Kenyetta McLaurin, got $600. Super Dirt, the organic fertilizer manufacturing company of Scotland High sophomore Terrence Smith, was awarded $575.
The YEA students were competing for more than start up cash at the panel – the investors also selected the class’ most promising business as its semifinalist for the Saunders Scholarship, a $30,000 college scholarship.
“I can’t wait to see who wins,” said Canada, a homeschooled eighth grade student. “Even if it’s not me, it’ll be fun to see the look on their face.”
As the Saunders semi-finalist, the panel selected Ciarrocca’s Southeastern Biochar. Electrik Lenz was ruled the runner-up.
Ciarrocca, the daughter of Brian and Melisa Ciarrocca of Laurinburg, is a sophomore at Scotland High School. She was inspired to create a biochar business after reading an article about the carbon-negative fertilizer, which she manufactures herself using wood chips.
“I read an article in the newspaper written by Debby Hanmer, who is a biologist at UNC-P, and it looked like a great opportunity,” Ciarrocca said. “I contacted her and I realized that it was just a great opportunity to create a product that wasn’t in use around here.”
Ciarrocca devoted a considerable amount of time outside of her YEA classes to thorough research of biochar, even designing her own ultra-efficient furnace.
“I’ve spent a lot of time researching information on the Internet and trying to find as much information possible about it to make this business go,” said Ciarrocca.
Ciarrocca will travel to the Rochester Institute of Technology in May to compete with the top student businesses from each of the other 24 YEA programs nationwide for the Saunders Scholarship.