A pair of Rio Grande Valley students took home top honors at the national competition of BizFest, an innovative and rigorous entrepreneurial training program where junior and senior high school students learn how to channel their interests into profitable ventures.
"Plaza Play Place" created by Nikki Rowe High School student Denise Graham, was a hit at the national competition. The senior grabbed first place and a $3,000 scholarship.
"It's a very exciting and rewarding feeling to have the opportunity to be able to represent the Valley and my school," Graham said.
Graham shaped a comprehensive business plan in which shoppers at La Plaza Mall in McAllen will have an inexpensive and secure place to leave their children while strolling through the shopping center.
"I think my passion for this plan was very evident and as a result the judges felt excited for this plan as well," said Graham. "I was nervous yet excited because everyone had innovative ideas and presentations, but at the same time I wanted to present my business plan and convince the judges why my business plan would be the most cost effective, rather than cost efficient."
Aranza Garza, a junior at Economedes High School in Edinburg, won second place and a $2,000 scholarship for her business plan, "Homecookin'," a healthy food services business. Hispanic teenagers like Garza and Graham learned how to turn hobbies into lucrative projects through the basics of entrepreneurship and leadership.
"Before BizFest I had a different perspective as to what business and entrepreneurship are," said Graham. "Now I find it more interesting and a universal tool to use."
As students go through the BizFest programs, they develop a viable business plan which is then presented to a panel of judges. Six Valley students advanced to the national showdown after winning a spot at the regional contest held in July at UTPA.
At the regional competitions, Dr. John Sargent, UTPA professor in the Department of Management, Dr. Sibin Wu, associate professor of management, and several graduate students worked with the youths one-on-one and helped them cultivate their business plan development. At the national competition, they assisted students on their presentation skills and polishing their final plan.
"It was not surprising that Denise and Aranza won the top prizes. They showed entrepreneurial spirits that reflect the very nature of the Rio Grande Valley," said Wu. "It is also beneficial for UTPA now that the kids have seen what a great business education our faculty can provide to them. Hopefully, they can spread the word about our entrepreneurship program and training at UTPA."
"I am totally elated. To my knowledge, the USHCC has never had back-to-back winners. The Rio Grande Valley should be proud of these kids as well as our education system," said Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president/CEO. "This win should, for sure, put a spotlight on our kids and school system here in the Valley. It should hopefully put away the myth of the Rio Grande Valley being a Third World area."
Sakulenzki said the students' triumph at BizFest is a prestigious accomplishment. The youths had an opportunity to use their newly developed networking techniques as they mingled with successful entrepreneurs at what is considered the largest gathering of Hispanic business leaders in America, she said.
"It is important to keep Hispanic students in the loop of the opportunities that lay out there for them," said Sakulenzki. "They need to become aware of corporate America. This gives them the opportunity to rub shoulders with federal and state elected officials and to get the feel of the big city."
Graham could not agree more. She said the experience was awe-inspiring. "There were so many people I would have never otherwise had the opportunity to meet, and because the BizFest group was a small and young group, the businesspeople were very interested in our ideas and giving us valuable advice," Graham said.
Learn more about BizFest and other entrepreneurship initiatives at UTPA by contacting Sargent at (956) 665-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.