The Youth Entrepreneurship Showcase (Y.E.S.) from the Arkansas Economic Acceleration Foundation has awarded more than $102,000 in cash prizes to student entrepreneurs in grades 5-8 since it was launched by the Arkansas Economic Acceleration Foundation in 2006.
The annual business-plan competition brings together 25 teams of finalists from school districts across the state to showcase, pitch and even sell their products and ideas before parents, school officials and a panel of judges at the Hot Springs Convention Center. Prizes are awarded in a variety of categories, from best business plan to best retail booth.
Since its launch, Y.E.S. has impacted more than 9,000 participating Arkansas students representing roughly 3,000 business plans entered.
Despite some initial hesitation, Delene McCoy is glad she introduced the Y.E.S. program to her Berryville students nine years ago. McCoy is the gifted-and-talented instructor and AP coordinator for grades 6-12 for Berryville schools, as well as the high school journalism and yearbook advisor. And it’s her students who’ve advanced each year since 2012 to the state level of the showcase, which is administered by the Arkansas Economic Acceleration Foundation (AEAF), a member of the Arkansas Capital Corporation Group.
“Initially, the thought of Y.E.S. intimidated me,” she said. “I wasn’t comfortable with the definition of entrepreneur myself and wanted to be more informed and raise my ability of awareness to a level of feeling confident enough to guide young people in the endeavor.”
McCoy’s concerns were put to rest after meeting with AEAF Executive Director Marie Bruno at a state gifted education conference in 2012. Bruno even came to her classroom at Berryville Middle School to speak with and encourage her students as they began the process of participating in the showcase, which is not limited to GT or AP students.
“Writing an extensive business plan is not for the weak or faint of heart. It is a multistep process and extremely detailed,” McCoy said. “The business plan is what is judged initially and reflects every aspect of a new idea, from the first thought of an answer to a problem to the projected sales and profit for one month. Students use and practice many concepts they have studied in their core-learning classes.”
Bruno said the benefits provided by the program extend beyond entrepreneurship.
“Teachers can use the Y.E.S. model as a great opportunity to engage students in both core-education skills and personal skills — communication, collaboration, teamwork, being responsible to others, being on time, etc.,” she said.
Almost 10 years into the program, McCoy sees those benefits manifest themselves through her students.
“I believe this type of educational experience supports all students as they all will operate a home, possibly their own business or at least work for someone,” she said. “Small businesses make up nearly one-half of the workforce in America and create new jobs consistently. It is important to pay it forward and help inspire and mentor young people and empower them to think like early entrepreneurs.”
The Y.E.S. experience has become a popular one for McCoy and her students. McCoy even took it a step further and introduced a Shark Tank-like competition for Berryville students in partnership with three local banks.
“The bankers are the sharks, and the students have the opportunity to make a three- to four-minute presentation/pitch for the chance to get some seed money to invest into their business idea. We also hold a Berryville Middle School Entrepreneur Showcase each year in December coinciding with the state announcement of the Y.E.S. Top 25. This way, each team gets at least a local opportunity to set up a storefront and showcase its new product.”
Sam Walls III, COO and president of Arkansas Capital, believes it’s important to introduce the principles of entrepreneurship to students at a young age.
“Getting students to look at things in a spirit of entrepreneurship is huge,” he said. “All the great things in the world were started through an entrepreneurial approach. Entrepreneurs see the world a little differently. They see things and ask, ‘Could I do this better?’
“From that perspective, introducing students to entrepreneurship is so valuable. Even if students never start their own businesses, entrepreneurship principles help them understand the underlying principles of business and become better and more valuable employees.”
McCoy cited one of her students who participated in Y.E.S. as a middle schooler and now runs a local food truck called Morning Grind — all while he completes coursework for his junior year. He has his own employees, and many of his teachers and former teachers are customers.
McCoy said the experience that student gained through Y.E.S. inspired the student to launch his own business.
“Students have walked away from the Youth Entrepreneur Showcase with a new level of confidence in themselves, not only as entrepreneurs, but as confident, young people whose ideas can compete with the best,” McCoy said. “The showcase gives them the realization that they can be successful in the marketplace with their solutions to everyday problems.”
She added that the cash prizes ($500 for winning teams) don’t hurt, either.
Walls has bigger cash prizes in mind for students who learn how entrepreneurial principles can help them succeed in the workplace, whatever occupation they choose. He wants Arkansas to build on its impressive entrepreneurial resume.
“Where is our next generation of Fortune 500 leaders coming from? If you can grow them organically, it’s better,” he said. “If you plant the seed, it’s a lot easier.”