January 29, 2023
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Entrepreneurs guide high school students in business pitch contest


A six-week program that helped more than 450 middle and high school students in Ventura learn about entrepreneurship and craft business plans will culminate in a final pitch competition on Dec. 11.

The event is being hosted by Aspire3: Entrepreneurial Educational Experiences, a group with support from the city government, schools and business organizations in Ventura. It will feature eight teams with participants from five high schools.

The Aspire3 program was masterminded by Sean Bhardwaj, the operations director for the Ventura Ventures Technology Center, the public-private partnership incubator behind City Hall that is home to fast-growing firms such as the Trade Desk, Connexity and Netplenish. Bhardwaj put the program together with all volunteers with sponsorship support from the Ventura Chamber of Commerce, Southern California Edison and Synergy.

The program started about a year ago. Participating teachers at Ventura schools integrate a six-week curriculum during which students form teams, come up with a business idea and then learn about topics such as market research and financial projections.

With the help of mentors from the business community, the students create six-page business plans that are later distilled into a 10-slide PowerPoint presentation and four-minute pitch. The students pitch at the school level to make to the finals, which will be judged by a panel and whose winner will take home $1,000 in prize money.

Bhardwaj said the participation from the business community is a critical element of the program’s success so far.

“Professionals with good careers taking these students and their ideas seriously helps the students take themselves seriously. Having someone listen to their idea is a life-changing event, without hyperbole,” Bhardwaj said. “The students really look forward to — and a lot of times don’t have the exposure at home to — a business mindset and someone who is well-versed in business who can speak to them and guide them.”

Mario de la Piedra is one of those business mentors. De la Piedra is an Ventura-based entrepreneur who has started two businesses, Western Yosemite Insurance Services and Bilingual Safety Training Solutions. An active Rotarian and Fillmore native, De la Piedra said he volunteered because it’s the kind of program he wished were available when he was younger.

“I’m a local kid. In high school, I had no formal training as far as the business world,” he said. “I went and saw these kids were coming up with great ideas, but you could tell they had no formal training whatsoever.”

As a case in point, De la Piedra met one student who had a great idea for a new fishing lure. The student had crafted prototypes and had even made a short demonstration video proving the lure’s effectiveness. The student believed he could make thousands of dollars if he just had a $300 investment for materials. What the student hadn’t thought out, though, were all the other elements of a business plan: supply chains, distribution and sales, marketing costs, insurance and overhead, and legal incorporation and investment structure. De la Piedra was able to help the student understand that money for materials is only a small part of the equation of launching a business idea.

“I love working with the kids. It’s really fun to hear them ask questions,” de la Piedra said. “It kind of restores my faith in the American education system. Our youths are really smart. They just need a little guidance.”

Not every student on every team will start his or her own business, and that’s fine by de la Piedra. The independent project management and problem-solving skills the students pick up are valuable anywhere in business.

“Even if they don’t succeed as entrepreneurs or even attempt to become entrepreneurs, these kids are going to be great general managers and great leaders,” de la Piedra said. “One of these kids I hope to hire when he’s done with college.”

Indeed, career opportunities are what spurred Bhardwaj to create the program. He himself came from a working-class family and was not turned on to business until a college professor at USC took him under his wing. Bhardwaj ended up getting a good job after graduating in 2009. But he realized he was atypical.

The unemployment rate among 18- to 25-year-olds is estimated to be as much as three times higher than for the general population. And going to college is no longer a safe bet — among all graduates since 2006, only 51 percent have full-time jobs, Bhardwaj said. Given all the data that suggest early career moves heavily impact lifetime earnings potential, Bhardwaj is concerned that an entire generation might be left behind by traditional career paths.

“The impact on them — not just now, but for their whole lives and careers — is huge,” Bhardwaj said. “We went back and asked what would have helped people to be better prepared to create their own opportunity. The program really comes out of that need to help students get started, and the only way to do that is through personal exposure.”

The finals will be held from 6-8:30 p.m. on Dec. 11 the Museum of Ventura at 100 E. Main St.

For more information, visit www.aspire3.com.