March 18, 2008

By Catherine Manabat

It's early on a rainy Sunday morning and Korn Hall is abuzz with people clad in business attire, drinking coffee, and doing last minute prep work in the breakout rooms. It's just like any other conference at UCLA Anderson School of Management, with one distinct difference: this crowd of businessmen and women are high school students. Though younger than your typical Anderson denizens, they're just as accomplished: the group is full of the leaders, and managers of current and future businesses.

For the fourth year in a row, Project ECHO (Entrepreneurial Concepts Hands-On) and the UCLA Anderson School of Management teamed up to host the Annual High School Business Plan Competition.

Chip and Vicky Goodman founded the program in honor of Chip's father who excelled in the food industry despite having only a high school education. "My father was an entrepreneur," Chip Goodman says. "He never went to college -- he was street smart you know? He helped start [Project ECHO] with me ten years ago." Goodman knows if his father were still alive, he would be honored to see how it's grown.

"These kids have the entrepreneur spirit. It's him, it's our family."

Project ECHO aims to provide a real world experience to non-traditional students where they have complete ownership of their business ventures, while their mentor serves as a guide in writing the proposal and understanding formal concepts of running a business.

The program includes three components: the business plan curriculum, the mentor program, and the competition. Participants are expected to write a business plan, and mentors from UCLA Anderson work with students, coaching them for their presentations. Emily Chan, Project ECHO's Executive Director, works closely with local high school administrators to identify students in vocational programs who would benefit from the experience. Participation in Project ECHO has been steadily increasing. Competitions once consisted of five teams, while this year's competition features a record 20 teams.

Craig Nesbitt and Nancy Hwang, who are on the board of the Challenge for Charity (C4C) chapter at UCLA Anderson, wanted Anderson students to get involved. When the program debuted its mentorship component last year, 13 mentors were involved. This year, 50 mentors from Anderson participated, including Nesbitt and Hwang.

“ECHO is one of the few volunteer opportunities we can promote where business school students honestly feel like they are using their MBA-skills to accomplish social good,” they said.

“Anderson students get the satisfaction of seeing their student teams develop real business ideas as well as a real business education, while also getting the emotional fulfillment of knowing they have made that school a better place.”

Catherine Gonzalez, a senior from Santa Barbara High, looks at her future differently since joined Project ECHO this past year. "Now, since I've been in the class, I know I can own my own business. Owning a business gives you a chance to think of another opportunity in life," she says.

Even as the judges deliberate, the participants never have a moment when they're not learning something. While a few take a tour of the UCLA campus, a number of teams line up to do interviews for "Kids Talk Radio," which is podcasted on The Personal News Network website. The three bubbly members of Tote-a-lly Awesome-which sells eco-friendly tote bags to benefit the environment-breeze through their questions like pros. Moderator Bob Barboza tells everyone in the room about the opportunities media can bring their businesses: "Without marketing, you go nowhere. You can't be bashful - you are in business."

After lunch, the anxious competitors file into Korn Hall for the Awards Presentation. Guest speaker Ali Kermani ('09) was also a non-traditional student. His mentor, Carlton Calvin of Razor USA, encouraged him to pursue a business degree at Anderson. Kermani highlights the role of mentorship in his life and encourages the students to achieve the greatness of which they are capable. Even the prizes encourage winners to further their business pursuits. The top three winners of each category receive capital for their businesses.

The team from Santa Susana High School won first place in the New Concept Business category for their presentation on Eclectic, a venture that intends to promote global fashion trends. Seflora, from Santa Monica High School, won in the Existing On-Campus Business category. After their first year of existence, they expanded their product choices and offered new services. They also planned solutions for problems they experienced.

The outgoing group representing Tote-a-lly Awesome Tote Bags snagged first place in the New On-Campus Business category. The winning teams squeals with glee and pose with their giant check with smiles from ear-to-ear. Of course, the learning experiences in preparation for the competition will remain with the students long after the program is over.

"This experience really affects my future and what I want to do in the future. I think I'll definitely study business in college or take business classes," says Natalie Juarez, a senior at Venice High School. Her team presented the Venice High Auto Service, which got second place under New On-Campus Business. She gushes about the role mentors play in helping teams prepare for the competition.

"The mentors - they're amazing. I love them all! And I really think we've formed a relationship that will last a long time, even after the competition is over."

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