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'Shark Tank' for Kids Funds Tween Entrepreneurs

By Patty Wetli | March 21, 2013 1:08pm

LINCOLN SQUARE — Perhaps somewhere in the group of middle school students gathered at Queen of Angels Wednesday night stood the next Mark Zuckerberg.

Would it be Jonathan Dugard, designer of a handy homework wristband? Sydney Baer, intent on building a mini-cupcake empire? Or Alex Milne, with his clever golf bag accessory?

The youngsters were among 20 sixth, seventh and eighth graders who spent the past 19 weeks participating in the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, brainstorming business ideas, crunching financials and developing marketing plans.

On Wednesday, they donned suits and ties, skirts and blazers and made their pitches for start-up funds to a bona-fide investor panel of local business owners, including Carol Himmel of Himmel's restaurant and Whit Nelson of Brew Camp.

"They are, on average, surprisingly good," said Jim Treleaven, president and CEO of Via Strategy Group and a member of the investor team.

Given the age of the students, Treleaven, who's also an adjunct faculty member at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found the level of professionalism particularly impressive.

"When I was 12, we had ink wells," he said jokingly.

Melissa Flynn, former head of the Lincoln Square-Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce, brought the program, which takes place nationally, to Lincoln Square. After sending feelers out to neighborhood elementary schools, she signed up Queen of Angels, St. Matthias and Rogers Park Montessori for the inaugural session.

"It's good exposure to real-life skills," said Sue Roeser, whose son Dean developed Bully Block, an anti-bullying web site, with classmate Ally Hancock.

To gain acceptance to the program, students had to obtain letters of recommendation, compose an essay and submit to an interview.

Said Roeser, "They learned so much just from what they had to do to participate."

Building confidence is a key element of the academy, said Diane Dugard, who served as program manager.

"They got their first interview over with, their first presentation over with. Now they know how to put all the pieces together," Dugard said.

Since October, students have logged three hours per week listening to guest speakers, visiting local businesses and crafting plans for their startups with the assistance of mentors.

"We had people come into our class and learned a lot about how they run their business," said Kyle Stemper, who co-founded Fun Photography along with pal Bridget Peterson.

One key lesson he learned: Being your own boss isn't all fun and games.

"When they started, they all worked 16-hour days," said Stemper.

Milne, whose Golf Bag Buddy was a particular hit, is ready for that challenge.

"I was hearing a lot of news about people losing their jobs and I didn't want to be in that position. I would love to be an entrepreneur. Everything I imagine doing, it's always centered on being my own boss," Milne said.

In the end, the investor panel proved more teddy bear than shark, doling out funds across the board, with awards ranging from $40 to $500. (Baer's MiniCakers snagged the top amount.)

"You all did a great job, so everybody got something to get started," said Paul Krappman, president and co-founder of Profitecture.

The big winner of the night was Eddie McCarthy, whose idea for My Allergy Business Card was prompted by his younger brother Jack, who has seven food allergies. The investors selected McCarthy to compete in the Young Entrepreneur Academy national finals in Rochester, N.Y.

"I'm really excited. I have no idea what to say right now," said an emotional McCarthy, who quickly regained his composure and thanked everyone in the room.

Flynn is aiming to have next year's crop of young entrepreneurs selected by the end of May, drawing from an even greater number of schools. Anyone interested in participating as a mentor, guest speaker, field trip guide or investor can contact her at info@lincolnsquare.org.

There are still 10 weeks remaining in the program for the first class of junior CEOs, who now begin the tough work of putting their plans into practice — setting up websites, making sales, obtaining business licenses.

How many will pass the test?

Said Treleaven: "The hard part is the reality of the market."