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home : education : schools April 24, 2015

6/4/2013 1:58:00 PM
Entrepreneur class awards top honors
Tiffany Millman, Joey Morgan, and Cooper Gould won prizes for business ideas. photo by John Griffith
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Tiffany Millman, Joey Morgan, and Cooper Gould won prizes for business ideas. photo by John Griffith

By John Griffith

For two evenings last week, 10 Sisters High School juniors and seniors made their best multimedia pitch to six "investors" to get funding for their "companies." At the close of the FivePine-based "investors conference" Thursday night, junior Cooper Gould walked away with the first prize of a polished aluminum briefcase ... with 1,500 one-dollar bills neatly wrapped inside.

Gould's pitch was for a company that conducts computer consultancy for seniors.

The competition was tight in the conference, which capped a volunteer-led high school class on entrepreneurship.

There were small point differences between many of the competitors. In the end, Joey Morgan (high school athletic funding) took home the polished aluminum lunch box with 500 one-dollar bills, and Tiffany Millman (youth night club) was awarded the polished aluminum lunch box with 250 one-dollar bills inside.

The cash awards were presented without strings. The money can be spent for college expenses, or to help launch the student's dream business.

As volunteer instructor Julie Benson advised the students early on, "We want you to think outside the cubicle." She shared how she and her husband, Benny Benson, did exactly that, breaking out of the cubicle of the corporate world to end up owning Sisters Airport and a heading up a very successful "green" engineering business at the airport.

During this third trimester elective credit course, named "Pursue Your Passion," the students were taken through the development of their own personal business-model "canvas," based on the concepts presented in the widely heralded 2010 book "Business Model Generation" by Osterwalder and Pigneur, presenting a concept developed by 470 practitioners from 45 countries.

To help fuel their entrepreneurial zeal, and to ground their dreams in local reality, the students visited five local entrepreneurial business: ENERGYneering Solutions, Inc., Sisters Coffee Co., Ponderosa Forge & Ironworks, Rescue Response Gear, and FivePine Lodge & Conference Center.

From the beginning of the class, the students knew that a formal multimedia presentation at FivePine was part of the course requirement. Later in the trimester, they learned that there would be a cash award to the winning business plan presentation. When the aluminum attaché with its contents was passed around in class later in the course, one of the students was overhead to say, "I'm going to get very competitive!"

The prime mover behind the creation of this innovative course was FivePine developer Bill Willitts.

A year ago, when the Sisters School District took their fourth consecutive million-dollar budget cut, the district was forced to cancel the lightly attended business and health programs at the high school.

Reacting to the elimination of the business program, Willitts got together with locally based serial entrepreneur and Forbes business writer Eric Wagner ("seven startups, three acquisitions, and five successful exits") to brainstorm a community volunteer-based business class to replace the cancelled business offering.

With an outline in hand, Wagner and Willitts approached Superintendent Jim Golden, and then Sisters High School Principal Joe Hosang with the idea for a third-trimester elective. Both Golden and Hosang were very enthusiastic about the concept, and quickly sold the school board on a community-volunteer-staffed high school class.

As funding for electives continues to disappear, Hosang noted, "This is a wave of the future to be able to provide elective offerings: The Sisters Folk Festival/America Project, the Science Club and now the entrepreneurial group."

Willitts' original list included 12 local entrepreneurial volunteer teachers. By the time class actually started, due to other commitments and schedules, the list was down to the teacher of record, veteran educator Jon Renner, and five instructors. The instructors included Julie Benson of ENERGYneering, Ann Richards, executive director of the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show, retired bank owner Gary Wehrle, Bill Willitts, and this correspondent. Benny Benson and local attorney Brian Witt provided focus in specific areas.

Besides Gould, Morgan and Millman, the student entrepreneurs included Austin Jacobsen (toy company), Damon Morton (multimedia cartoon consultancy), David Vitelle (local tea shop), Eli Harrison (environmental consultancy), Jake Jeppsen (mini golf), Paige Tosello (drive-in theater) and Shoshana Gauthier (organic custom jewelry).

The prize money, the "Pursue Your Passion" embroidered Black Crater fleece jackets presented to the students and teachers, the text books and the cost of the "investor" conference at FivePine were donated by Willitts.

Superintendent Golden said, "(This) is really what a modern education system should do, which is engage our community. We have such an incredible, talented group of successful community people, we need to hook our kids up with them. The beauty of this is that the kids learned a lot, but the adults did, too."

Principal Hosang said, "This is going to be hard to top. The community stepped up to fill a hole. As we move more to proficiency base we are going to see much more of this model."

Current plans have the "Pursue Your Passion" course being offered again in the second trimester of the 2013-2014 school year.

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