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Middle school students mean big business

Lemonade stands, bake sales or selling popcorn for Boy Scouts are some typical ways aspiring young entrepreneurs begin their business experiences. Not these Northwest Arkansas middle school students, though, thanks to the World Trade Expo project, created by the Enactus team at John Brown University.

The project exists “to nurture and cultivate entrepreneurship through education and to celebrate that spirit with the culminating showcase at the mall,” said Clayton Anderson, Enactus faculty adviser.

On Friday, about 100 students in 30 teams representing eight area schools set up shop for a day in the Dillard’s wing of the Northwest Arkansas Mall. The young vendors even got to keep the profits they made during the day.

The event was a success, according to Anderson. “We had many hot sellers including fashionable bracelets and jewelry, felt mustaches, and artwork. There was also a pretty steady flow of traffic by the booths and lots of support for the budding entrepreneurs,” he said.

The fledgling entrepreneurs drew media attention by their presence in the mall, including reporters visiting from KNWA News and The City Wire.

But the experience did not start or stop there.

Much happens in the project to prepare the students before they ever get to the mall to peddle their wares. Enactus students start preparing for the World Trade Expo in the spring, getting curriculum to middle school teachers and ensuring they are equipped to educate the students in basic business principles. The middle schoolers also attend a seminar taught by University faculty and volunteers in the fall to reinforce the principles and educate the young students on how to create a successful business plan.

“One thing that got me really enthusiastic about this project is the entrepreneurship taken to the children and middle schoolers,” said sophomore Julio Briones, current project leader. “I have come to believe that ‘they have the magic.’ I do not believe that we have to teach them skills or innovation, what we do is developing what they have.”

Once the plans were created this fall, 12 to 15 Enactus members spent hours to select the 30 best to participate in Friday’s Expo. This year the team evaluated 51 student-created plans.

Sophomore Ethel Ilias, co-leader, was crucial to the project at this point, as she examined many plans herself and convinced others to help, said Briones.

The World Trade Expo project began over 20 years ago as part of Enactus, formerly Students in Free Enterprise, or SIFE, to teach business skills to young students. A few years ago, the project came to the end of a successful season as Enactus did not have anyone at the moment to take it up and run it way it required.

It remained dormant until Senior Roberto Navarette and Briones took the initiative to begin the project anew this year.

New to the event this year was an elevator pitch competition, where the students had two to five minutes to present their project for a panel of judges and an audience. Winners received awards, sponsored by Innovate Arkansas or 101 Ventures.

Similarly to previous years, teams could also win cash prizes from Kraft Foods, McKee Foods, Parachuting Penguins, for best business plans, best booth displays and best environmentally sustainable businesses.

Anderson said, “It went very well—I think our judges enjoyed the great displays of courage for middle school students to stand up with a microphone in front of hundreds and pitch their business.”

Briones explained his reason for why “world” remains in the project’s name, even though the expo happens with local students in Northwest Arkansas.

“In business, one dollar flows throughout the world, whether we know it or not,” he said. “The business is worldwide; transactions are international no matter where they are done. [Entrepreneurship] is a concept that ought to be taught and embraced all over the world.”

Briones also has big dreams for the project in the future. “I dream about this project, it is a giant thing for me,” he said. “I am only sad that I am here for just maybe 3 more years and I do not get to be a leader for longer. I was once a kid, even a kid in an orphanage. I know what it would be like if someone came and game me something that would show me that I had value.”