Editor’s note: The following is part of Startland News’ ongoing coverage of the impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Kansas City’s entrepreneur community, as well as how innovation is helping to drive a new normal in the ecosystem. Click here to follow related stories as they develop. STARTLAND is the parent organization of Startland News, though this report was produced independently by Startland News’ non-profit newsroom.
When student pitch teams from across Kansas City take over Zoom next week to compete for $5,000 in cash prizes, it’ll be all eyes on their solutions to COVID-19 challenges, said Katie Kimbrell.
“We are all looking to the youth to lead us in years to come,” said Kimbrell, director of education for STARTLAND, the parent organization of Startland News and the organizer of the COVID-19 Student Pitch Competition alongside CommunityAmerica Credit Union.
Among those hoping for inspiration after two months of pandemic difficulties: a handful of Kansas City celebrity judges that includes “dapper rapper” Kemet Coleman, CEO and artist at Kemet Creative; Heidi Gardner, KC native and a current cast member on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”; Lisa Ginter, CEO of CommunityAmerica; Wendy Guillies, president and CEO of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation; and Sandy Kemper, founder and CEO of C2FO.
In addition to the $5,000 cash prize and the opportunity for virtual face time with heavy-hitter judges, winners are expected to earn an opportunity to implement their pitch plans through Kansas City business mentors.
“The pitch rally is about making ideas real,” said Kimbrell. “It is a way of saying: This project doesn’t culminate in an essay for your teacher, it culminates in a real product. Pitching — formal or informal — is a constant factor in getting real ideas off the ground, because it’s about getting people — different stakeholders — on board. You can’t build and launch ideas without real people on board.”
Click here to RSVP to watch the student pitch competition as it unfolds.
Judges will help determine the winners from among eight finalist teams pitching at the May 27 virtual competition — already pared down from 350 local high school and college students who were distributed across more than 40 teams. The competitors are all spring innovation interns from CommunityAmerica’s Innovation Lab.
Click here to read more about CommunityAmerica’s virtual innovation internship effort.
STARTLAND organized the pitch competition with CommunityAmerica as a voluntary extension of the six-week innovation internship, Kimbrell said, noting nearly all the interns opted to participate.
“The vision was to create a platform for students to meaningfully apply and practice the principles of innovation and design thinking to the global crisis we’re all suddenly living in,” she said. “The pitch competition was a several-weeks adaptation of our MECA Challenge program, putting students in diverse design teams and pairing them with entrepreneurial mentors to coach them in building solutions.”
Click here to read more about the MECA Challenge, a sister program to Startland News that serves as a one-day innovation challenge for local high school students.
“We believe where deep learning happens is when our youth are collaborating to solve messy, ambiguous problems with their own ideas, and working to make these ideas real,” Kimbrell continued. “It’s also about meaningful preparation — how do we expect our youth to be problem solvers and leaders later if we aren’t empowering them to solve real problems now?”
In the run-up to the May 27 pitch competition, STARTLAND and CommunityAmerica tapped founders from across the entrepreneur spectrum — Toby Rush, founder of EyeVerify; Riddhiman Das, co-founder of TripleBlind; Danielle Lehman, founder of the Open Belly podcast and Curbside KC; Chris Goode, founder of Ruby Jean’s Juicery; Kaitlin Abdelrahman, founder of On Call Halal; and Matt Baysinger, co-founder of Swell Spark — to engage students using people already at the forefront of Kansas City innovation, Kimbrell said.
“Every founder we brought in had an incredible story of something they had built — it was like a very personal, local conversation of ‘How I Built This,’” she added, referencing the popular, entrepreneur-focused podcast. “They had stories that embraced failure and risk, and were each so inspiring. They transparently shared about what they built during the pandemic, or how they had to pivot their business.”
Exposure to such authentic business challenges — as well everyday impacts — was among the key drivers behind the pitch competition, said Anita Newton, chief innovation officer for CommunityAmerica and board co-chair for STARTLAND, though the idea for the internship program itself had more practical origins.
“The purpose of the intern program and competition is to engage teens who are out of a summer job by offering paid, real-world experience,” Newton said in a press release, adding that participation is completed in a safe online environment and can go on participants’ resumes.
The public pitch competition allows an opportunity for the community — not just parents and organizers — to rally behind the students and a new way of solving problems through collaboration and risk, said Kimbrell.
“To put it another way: to lean on empathy to launch solutions that are novel and useful,” she said.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.