Editor’s note: Startland News is an affiliate organization of MECA Challenge, both of which are operated by CEED LLC.
A competition that challenges students to solve startups’ business problems is gaining traction in Kansas City.
MECA Challenge is an entrepreneurial problem-solving contest for high school- and college-aged students that aims to transform education and produce innovative thinkers. The acronym stands for “Most Entrepreneurial Community in America” — inspired by the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s 2012 Big 5 initiative — which is a goal that MECA Challenge founder Adam Arredondo can get behind.
Arredondo initially saw an opportunity to bring innovation into the education system during the launch of the Kansas City Startup Village in 2012.
“I saw the hunger from students and educators (touring the Startup Village) who were wanting to learn about the entrepreneurial community,” Arredondo said. “I wanted to give them a better learning experience and prepare students for the 21st century.”
But before tackling the entire system, Arredondo first planned to directly reach students. And a few years later in 2014, MECA took flight.
Now more than 20 MECA events later, it’s given hundreds of students in the Kansas City area a real-world business challenge that they have to solve with mentors. To enhance the experience, the MECA team hand selects its mentors, which often are entrepreneurs or those that work closely with the area entrepreneurial community.
Here’s how it works. Students are placed in teams with one mentor and are asked to address the event-specific challenge — for example, increasing participation in KC Crew’s recreation sports league. Like in business, students research their market, concoct and validate ideas and then present the ideas to the group. Judges evaluate participants’ performance and determine the best solution, looking at such criteria as presentation skills, creative problem-solving and others.
Arredondo hopes the competition allows students to come out of their shells.
“Having an entrepreneurial spirit is critical whether you’re an entrepreneur or not,” Arredondo said. “Being able to solve problems, communicate, collaborate, think critically and think creatively — those are all soft skills that, no matter what career you have, you’ll need. In the 21st century, you have to be adaptable and you have to be able to think on your feet.”
What began as an annual three-day event has transformed into a scalable event. In 2016, MECA Challenge hosted 16 events. That number is on track to grow next year, Arredondo said.
In addition to helping urban students, the organization recently hosted an all-female MECA Challenge with 85 girls. With representation from Independence, Kansas City, Park Hill, Excelsior Springs, Blue Springs and Liberty school districts as well as Cottey College, it marked the organization’s first invitational event.
To fully embrace the power of women, MECA paired female mentors with the girls for the event. For the event, students were told to come up with a marketing solution for Athena League, a local organization that fosters female entrepreneurs.
Skeptical at first, Arredondo hopes the event gave young girls someone to look up to.
“It was something that’s hard for me to relate to as a white male,” Arredondo said. “But the usefulness (of all female spaces) is undeniable when you see it. The big takeaway for me is how excited all of the women were to be a part of the event, and I think that speaks volumes.”
Cottey College President Jan Weitzel was thrilled that the school participated.
“When women are no longer the minority in the room, their voices become loud and clear,” Weitzel said. “This girl-powered environment is not the norm and it is important to provide this unique experience for girls and women.”
Lesa Mitchell, a former vice president of innovation and networks for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the managing director of the new Techstars Kansas City accelerator, served on the panel of judges for the event. She echoed Weitzel’s sentiments.
“Research suggests that young women ask less questions and are less aggressive in a co-ed environment,” Mitchell said. “The opportunity MECA Challenge provided allowed young women to gain an experiential opportunity problem solving in an area that they weren’t an expert and learning through the presentations that there is never really one right answer, there are many.”
To learn more about MECA Challenge, watch the video below.