Asheville Middle School Students Pitch Local Investors Business Ideas, Shark Tank Style

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“If you just place the shirt upside down on the smart folder and fold both the sleeve sides, then up the middle, you’ll have a perfect fold. We need a small loan of $12 for the duct tape and we’re going to sell these for about $6-$7. We thank you for your time and look forward to hearing from you,” a seventh grade student at Asheville Middle School shared, dressed sharply in a blue button down and tie alongside his classmate/business partner. The two were one of many groups of students in Mrs. Elaina Portugal’s classroom given the opportunity to dream up a business idea and work through the process of creating it, including sourcing materials, calculating production cost and working out the kinks in how to bring their business to life. Rather than simply share their finished product with their classmates and move on however, Mrs. Portugal had a great idea--to bring together a group of successful business leaders from Western North Carolina for the students to pitch their businesses to in a Shark Tank format, just like the popular ABC television show. When we heard the idea here at United Way of Asheville & Buncombe County through our on-site resource coordinator at Asheville Middle (who helps to facilitate weekly Homework Diners, providing support to students/families in that school district), well needless to say, our fins were all in, to co-create the Cougar Tank alongside Mrs. Portugal.
 
 
"Part of the seventh grade social studies curriculum is personal finance and most twelve and thirteen year olds don’t understand that because money is so abstract to them. They don’t have access to it and are still asking for it from mom and dad. So when you try to teach them about money, they just don’t have a grasp,” Mrs Portugal shared. “So I thought the Shark Tank format would be a great way for them to learn not only how to start a business and what it takes to make a business, but to actually earn some money and figure out what that means. They can then decide if they want to save it or if they want to spend it. We talked about compounding interest and what that looks like in 4-5 years if they start saving money. We talked about credit cards and what compounding interest looks like on that as well, so I think it just helps make it a bit more tangible.”
 

Project Based Learning = Middle School Success

We couldn’t agree more with Middle School Success as one of our top initiatives here at United Way. To provide investors for these eager Cougars, we put out the call to our potential sharks, (i.e.the successful business leaders whose contributions of time, compassion, and monetary investment help to create programs like the Homework Diners in local middle schools). We have an opportunity for you to be a part of an experience at Asheville Middle School, we shared excitedly. If you’re able and interested in hearing seventh grade students pitch their business ideas and share working prototypes Shark Tank style, please register for the time slot that you’re available. The response was overwhelming and the local leaders on board, willing to share their time to hear these students and share a small investment, were more than impressive. These local sharks swam in from a variety of businesses, including Mission Foundation, Brumit Restaurant Group, Hometrust and Suntrust Banks, The Asheville Citizen Times, Wells Fargo, Asheville Specialty Hospital, and Keller Williams to solo entrepreneurs and the owners of successful local businesses, such as Porter and Prince in Biltmore Village.
 
We greeted investors at the middle school on a blustery January morning and took them upstairs where they were then debriefed by Mrs. Portugal, who shared important reminders about the student’s age, their inclusive classrooms where students range in ability unlike earlier classrooms where students were separated, and the range of home life situations affecting many of the students. “These kids are all coming from very unique backgrounds, ranging from homeless to affluent,” she shared. “I feel like this project really allows all of them the ability to learn and dream and hear important feedback from you all, and maybe have the opportunity to make a little money."
 
 

Inspiring Business Ideas and Creative Business Pitches

The investors walked down the hall as students clambered to grab notebooks and jackets from their lockers before the bell rang. Mrs. Portugal and student teacher from UNC Asheville Marshall Crutcher, ushered both students and business leaders into the classroom for the start of the first of eight pitch-sessions that day. The student’s sat wide-eyed in button-down shirts and dresses, clutching their posters and creations in their laps. A three-person team stands up on Mr. Crutcher’s call and begin to share their goat milk and honey soap creation, ‘Bee You Skincare.’
 
“It’s about $1-$2 to make each one,” a student from the soap company shares, wavering her hand to represent the flexible working cost of her team’s product. “And you all will work together to make them,” asks an investor. The students nod in unison. “How long does it take you to make them.” another investor asks. “It really doesn’t take long,” the student replied. You just mix the goat milk, honey and other ingredients together then let it set for about 30-40 minutes.” That sounds like fun and they’re really pretty,” Debra Prince Slosman, Owner and Creative Director of Porter and Prince, a luxurious linen and sleepwear retail outlet in Biltmore Village replied, holding the little soap neatly wrapped in a bag with a paper tag reading Bee You Skincare.
 
The Cougars shared an impressive range of business ideas--from bath bombs with toys inside and custom made coasters, t-shirt folders that help with the time-consuming chore of laundry, traditional pupuserias and reimagined natural orange soda, lavender calming pillows and a slime substance called Flop that you throw at a board in a game to score points, just to name a few. 
 
“I thought the students articulated their products and services so well, it was hard to choose just one that I wanted to invest in,” shared Janice Brumit of the Brumit Restaurant Group, excitedly. “My final selection was by two young gentleman who presented jewelry made with washers and ribbons. What a great way for these students to learn about business and planning and what it takes to do business in the real world. We were able to give them feedback on presentations after they presented in a very much Shark Tank-like environment where they were expected to pitch their products to us as the investors.  I think it was wonderful for them to see the real world in action and pitch a project very much like you would in the real world and all the things that come with that like doing math and learning how your budget works. It’s true real world application of business practices.”
 
 
The investors were each asked to limit their selection to one business idea at a $20 investment. The students eye lit up hearing the sharks decisions after a 20 minute deliberation period. Many were also given feedback on their product cost and market as well as further ideas to improve their final design before the Cougar Tank Business Fair on Wednesday, February 28th. After hands were shaken and paperwork signed, students ran bright-eyed to their next class as investors filed into the school’s office to complete their investment forms. 
 
“I think that this (project-based learning) was on a different scale from our typical projects, so we really have to applaud Mrs. Portugal for taking this on, because it’s not just your everyday lesson planning,” student teacher Marshall Crutcher shared. “There’s a lot more work that goes into this, especially from a logistical standpoint in involving outside agencies to come in. So this is a much bigger project, but I think the pay-off for students is there.”

Next Steps

We invite you all to attend the Cougar Tank Business Fair, which is open to the public from 5pm-6pm Wednesday, February 28th. There you can see and purchase all of the creative products these seventh grade students have brought to life. Take a look at the full gallery of images from the Asheville Middle Cougar Tank experience. Learn more about ways you can get involved in the community through Hands On Asheville-Buncombe.

 

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