Editor’s note: The following is a student-written article written by one of 357 interns in CommunityAmerica Credit Union’s recent virtual innovation internship program. Sydney Newton is an incoming junior at Shawnee Mission East High School. CommunityAmerica is a financial partner of STARTLAND, the parent organization of Startland News.
As Chloe Chaffin pitched her team’s idea to five celebrity judges and hundreds of audience members during the live COVID-19 Pitch Competition, the only thing going through her mind were prayers that her Zoom wouldn’t lag and her WiFi wouldn’t cut out.
After her team finished, judge and “Saturday Night Live” star Heidi Garner said she wanted to buy their product, giving Chaffin a sense of relief and allowing her to reflect on her favorite memories with her team.
“There’s no words for that moment when you feel like your work has been seen and it meant something in a time where everything feels out of control,” Chaffin said.
As an incoming freshman at Washburn University, Chaffin participated in a virtual internship run by CommunityAmerica Credit Union and STARTLAND, where she listened to guest speakers and learned problem solving skills before being put into randomly selected groups for a May 27 virtual pitch competition.
Chaffin and her team created Connection Bear, a teddy bear with a voice box that syncs to an app — allowing parents to leave messages for their kids at any time during the day. One of eight teams to make it to the final live pitch competition, Connection Bear earned first place out of the college teams and a reward of $6,500 dollars.
Click here to learn more about the winners.
The idea for Connection Bear began when Chaffin’s team started brainstorming problems existing because of the coronavirus, identifying the inability of first responders to communicate back home to their children because of quarantine circumstances. After a team member suggested a stuffed animal, they kept coming back to that idea even after hours of brainstorming, making it their main focus.
“It started with those pictures of doctors and nurses in New York City that had to be quarantined away from their families even after an emotionally and physically exhausted shift,” Chaffin said. “We wished that there was some sort of way for them to communicate with their children at bedtime even if they couldn’t be there in person.”
Chaffin’s team met twice a week during the beginning rounds of the competition, but met three to four times each day in the week leading up to the live finale. They began each meeting by having an open discussion period, before checking in on each member and running through their pitch.
The constant Zoom meetings led to a close friendship between Chaffin and her group members, joking around while creating the script for their presentation and getting to know each other. During the live pitch competition, her group texted each other the entire time, cheering each other on.
“It was nice to see that those people all had your back even though we didn’t know each other a month ago,” Chaffin said.
Chaffin felt she was able to grow confidence in technology and learn more about creating a business because of the pitch competition. Given only a month to create multiple different pitches, Chaffin felt the time constraint helped her group get all of the work done.
“A lot of times, it’s really easy to recognize your own weaknesses when it comes to business and presentations, but this was one of the special chances where you had such a short time that you had to figure it out,” Chaffin said. “That little bit of extra pressure is what was needed to push through.”
For Addison Funk, a member of HexaChat, the winning high school team, the pitch competition helped her gain insight into creating a business — something she hopes to continue as a career. Funk believes that everyone involved in the internship learned dedication and time management.
“A lot of times in schools, it’s the same thing over and over again,” Funk said. “You don’t learn how to work well with others or work well in general. I think the pitch competition gave us a good sense of work ethic and how to meet deadlines which is a really good life skill.”
Chaffin feels like both the internship and pitch competition have helped students gain a curiosity about ways to help their communities. From presenting in front of several well known judges to forming friendships with her group, Chaffin enjoyed the whole experience.
“When I signed up for the internship in March, it was just kind of something to do,” Chaffin said. “I wanted to find something to do to give back even in the slightest way and make sure this was a productive time for me. I never imagined this would be a fun time for me.”
Sydney Newton is an incoming junior at Shawnee Mission East High School. She plays volleyball and lacrosse, participating in the student newspaper and SHARE. Newton hopes to pursue a career in medicine or business.
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.
Watch the full pitch competition below.