Most entrepreneurs learn the ins and outs of starting a company in their 20s, 30s, and beyond. But for 31 Seattle-area teenagers, lessons of idea creation, execution, and teamwork came a little bit early.
For the fifth consecutive year, a group called TiE Young Entrepreneurs (TYE) Seattle helped mentor more than 30 high schoolers who spent the past eight months learning what it means to be an entrepreneur.
From September through December, the organization brought in startup experts like Rover.com CEO Aaron Easterly and RivalIQ founder T.A. McCann for weekly intensive training sessions to learn the basics of business — topics like marketing, product development, finance, presentation skills and law.
The teens then spent the next four months in teams, learning how to start their own company. In April, they competed in front of judges and the winning group advanced on to a TYE international competition.
This year, the top team developed the Sicuro Safety Case: An iPhone case that, when squeezed three times, can signal emergency services to your exact location.
Lucy Zhu, an Inglemoor High grad who’s heading to business school at the University of Washington this fall, came up with the idea after completing a school project about sex trafficking in Seattle.
“Originally, we were focused on energy-related issues but my mind kept wandering back to crimes against women,” she said. “I kind of just blurted it out while someone was talking.”
The idea of creating a business, but also making a positive difference in the community appealed to the group.
“For us, the passion from this idea comes from real situations in the entire world,” said Aishwarya Mandyam, a senior at Skyline High School. “In other countries such as India, a device like this would be so beneficial to everyone, especially girls. There are many situations all over the world in which this case could prove to be life-saving and understanding the implications of a product like this really made us realize the true value of it.”
But of course, a great idea is only the beginning of any successful company. For the past six months, the students got an education on execution, spending hours refining the product, learning how to work together as a team, meeting with mentors, and finally, preparing a pitch for the TYE Seattle competition.
One of the initial problems for the four-person Sicuro team was figuring out how to integrate the smartphone case with emergency centers. Susanne Hughes, a senior account executive at T-Mobile who volunteers as the TYE chair, brought in an industry expert who helped the group nail down how exactly communication between the case and emergency center would work.
There were also issues with properly setting up secure servers to enable the notifications to actually reach emergency personnel. So, Hughes then found an Amazon Web Services guru who met with the team and provided recommendations like partnering with a bigger security company.
“We just take an issue they came across and find someone they can talk to that helps them,” Hughes said.
The team also got in touch with police officers, who gave a thumbs-up to the idea, while polling hundreds of people in their hometown for market validation.
But past figuring out complex issues around executing on an entrepreneurial idea and creating a legitimate business plan, the students said one of the big takeaways was learning how to work as a team on a high-stress project for six months. The four high schoolers had not previously met, but ended up figuring out how to get along while also creating a business — not exactly the easiest task, as many entrepreneurs know.
“It became painfully obvious that having great teammates to work with is a must,” said Atticus Liu, a Redmond High grad who’s headed to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo this fall. “The four of us are a tight knit group with great chemistry.”
“My favorite part was our team,” added Mandyam. “We worked together on everything and when one person couldn’t do something, everyone else would pitch in.”
That’s something that Hughes noticed for the past six months and during the pitch competition.
“When you looked at their presentation, there wasn’t just one person talking about finance or technology — they were all talking during the whole thing,” she said. “It’s the teamwork that often in companies makes things work. That was certainly true for this group.”
The students ended up producing a 3D-printed prototype of the safety case and brought it to the TYE Seattle pitch competition in April. They won first place and then traveled to Vancouver, B.C. last month to compete against 22 other TYE teams from all around the world.
Though they didn’t walk away with the $10,000 first place prize, the Sicuro team still hopes to have their product reach consumers one day. Mandyam and her twin sister Aishwarya — the fourth team member — will be seniors this year at Skyline and want to apply for a patent and compete in similar competitions with the idea.
And while their career aspirations may vary — Liu has dreams to be a tech entrepreneur; Zhu wants to be an international businesswomen; Karishma Mandyam hopes to be a surgeon; and her sister Aishwarya is interested in computer science — it’s clear that the group is now equipped with some invaluable entrepreneurial experience that can help them succeed in the real world.
“My favorite part about this entire process was the whole thing,” Liu said. “We aced through certain parts of the program, but slogged through others. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. We learned so much, developed new skills and honed others. It was an adventure, and I’m glad that my teammates and mentor were along for the ride.”