Eighty students from around the country met at Massey University in Albany, Auckland on Friday to take on some fascinating challenges designed to develop their entrepreneurial skills. All the students came from different schools and Xero were allocated an eight student team to mentor, for which we sent three ‘volunteers’ – John Manktelow, Richard Phillips, and me.
This is an activity of the Young Enterprise Trust, of which Xero is a proud sponsor. The scheme sees hundreds of secondary students working in groups throughout the year developing entrepreneurial skill sets to spark new directions for themselves. Earlier this year Owen Evans talked of his role as a judge at the Wellington East Girls College event.
On arrival the first news which greeted us was one of our team was out for medical reasons caused by stress. We were now a team of seven. The evening was a chance to ensure our team got to know each other and get any awkward dynamics out of the way early and to motivate them for the rest of the weekend.
Saturday’s challenge was issued at 9am:
To develop a business proposal to increase tourism visitation and income for a national, regional, or local tourist attraction, which you will present to a panel of venture funders. These investors are particularly interested in business ideas where you need to apply science and technology to manage the environmental issues. You will need to balance the revenue needed to sustain profitability, against the cost of preserving and improving the attractions environment for future generations of tourists.
Our team brainstormed ideas, they were still a little nervous of each other at this stage. The idea everyone agreed on was self-fertilising seed paint-gun bullets to regenerate selected areas of New Zealand with native plants.
Over the next four or so hours they worked on formulating the ideas into a business plan and presentation. We arranged for Xero CEO Rod Drury to skype at 2pm for an informal “Dragon’s Den” practice pitch. The feedback was honest & well deserved – it gave our team the motivation needed to fill the holes in their plans and presentation. The energy and passion went up a couple of gears and they way they turned themselves and their work around in the next hour and a half was impressive. We were last to present, this extra time was well used honing the presentation to be word perfect and pleased to say it went smoothly. Rod would not have recognized it as the same presentation he’d seen at 2pm!
Unfortunately though, the supporting business plan wasn’t strong enough to win. The team, both students and mentors, handled the disappointment with grace and talked about what improvements were needed for their performance on Sunday. The challenge for the next day was then issued before we left – “To create an apple based product and develop a market entry strategy to export that product to Australia.”
Sunday 8am – six students arrived at the Xero offices – yes we had lost one to injury. The remaining students though had been researching and collaborating into the wee hours and were full of enthusiasm. An idea quickly developed – the product was to be gummy apple candies made out of dehydrated apple cider vinegar and targeted at teenagers to ‘eat away your acne’.
This business plan had to be submitted by 2.30pm and the team was mindful of maximizing every minute effectively. The atmosphere was charged from all the light-bulb moments happening occasionally as concepts began to fall into place. They were so confident from seeing such improvement in their outputs, that when a visiting judge arrived to answer any questions, the team felt they didn’t have any. Luckily a few well-placed nudges reminded them the value of this opportunity!
The business plan was submitted, and we had half an hour to work on the presentation and to return to Massey campus. We were first up this time. For such short preparation time the team rose to the challenge – even if one guy went rogue and presented something completely different to what was practiced back in office! Fortunately it didn’t impact the result.
In the hour or so we had to wait for news of our fate us mentors took time out to debrief with the students, as we had the previous day, asking them for their thoughts, lowlights, and highlights. All three of us were impressed with the self-awareness the students showed and interestingly both day’s results and feedback accurately reflected the student’s own thoughts.
Unfortunately our team didn’t win the second day’s challenge either. Although to look at the students, you wouldn’t know it. Their drive, and passion for business, was ignited and were already talking about how to make their ideas happen in the real world.
For myself personally, I’m filled with pride with what the team achieved. I’ve reflected on areas where I could have helped them better, and am looking forward to having another opportunity to do this with another great team of kids next year.