Surry students swim among sharks

Grace Phillips of Grace Got Cakes won this year’s YESurry competition. Chase Pruitt, a past winner, was the special guest presenter and Sue Brownfield is seen with the presentation of the $2,000 check, matched with the $500 Grace won for winning at the school level.

ryan kelly

On Thursday, a contest at Pilot Mountain pitted the business savvy of budding high school entrepreneurs against each other in a test of skill and moxie. YESurry is their chance to dip a toe into the proverbial shark tank without fear of losing a limb or being eaten for lunch.

Local high school teams made a pitch presentation for their businesses. Students were encouraged to research a need where a new business or service would be helpful. Students should then go back once all groups have left for an “elevator pitch”.

“You will talk to our Mr. Moneybags, who is very wealthy and invests in new businesses,” Sue Brownfield explained to the students. “Suddenly you get into an elevator with Mr. Moneybags. So you need to introduce yourself and your company – you want Mr. Moneybags to say ‘Meet me next Monday at 10 a.m.’”

The winner of the competition was Grace Phillips from North Surry High for Grace Got Cakes. Phillips said, “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I’ve been trying to build businesses since I was 5, so that means a lot, and I’m excited for the future of Grace Got Cakes.

She won a cash prize totaling $2,500 to invest in her business. She acknowledged that kids her age don’t usually try to run a business and that “it definitely took a toll on my social life. I don’t spend as much time with my friends.

“I see the value in doing this rather than going out, but I try to balance my social life, taking breaks and spending time with friends. In the long run, this is going to do more for me than just ‘going to parties.’ It seems ‘work-life balance’ has entered the high school curriculum.

Diana Casares-Carapia got up at 3 a.m. to make her confections for the pageant before heading to class for the day. She pitched well and Confectionery Diana won a check for $1,000 for second place, matched with $500 for winning at her grade level.

She started cooking to help her family make ends meet during COVID. She now has pending orders that she needs help filling and has asked investors to “invest in me”. After taking business courses at Surry Early College, Casares-Carapia is set to open her own store in Dobson after graduation.

Elkin High came in third, which doubled its initial earnings to $1,000 for paying students. Braden Oliver and Luke Burchette made their elevator pitch for an online hub where students, with the teacher’s recommendation, can apply to tutor other students. They mentioned creating a sense of camaraderie among the students as they help each other.

“Find your niche,” keynote speaker Will Pfitzner encouraged the students. “There are hundreds of thousands of other people interested in who you are.”

He went on to discuss the dangers of creeping consumerism as a way to search for personal identity. Digital identities will reduce the desire to buy things to gain a sense of self or status. With increased access to information, he encouraged students to be aware of media “brainwashing” and seek out their own information.

YESurry launched at Mount Airy High in 2019 and quickly expanded to all seven high schools. Brownfield said enrollment this year was “a cut above. They really upped their game.”

“We want them to become business savvy: how to start a business, how to make a business plan, a financial plan, what is your competition, how do you network,” she explained. “Advisors have challenged their team over the past few months.”

“The competition asks them to pool and hone the skills they’ve already learned in school and supplement them with new skills,” councilor Greg Perkins said.

“I have personally seen my team develop the poise and confidence to present persuasively to business decision makers, to know the highs and lows of product and business plan development, and to have the patience to carry out these processes,” the chairman of Perkins Financial told Mount Aéré.

From concept design to developing a business plan to the final pitch, it takes effort. Learning to collaborate, synthesize ideas and develop actionable plans are skills that will benefit these students wherever life takes them.

“Competition is an amazing opportunity for kids to learn what the ‘real world’ expects of them,” Perkins said. It should also show students what to expect in return and that they will face a hurdle.

Rejection is not a lesson everyone wants to learn, but it is a fact of business life that not all businesses will succeed. For some, a cold lesson in business was delivered in a more palatable format than a slammed door with rejection later in life.

“These children are learning to conquer the fears that keep many adults from pursuing their entrepreneurial impulses,” Perkins observed, “conquering which provides our next generation of job creators and community leaders.” The incubation of the next generation of teachers, businesses and industry leaders in and for Surry County is a recurring drumbeat that is intensifying from different corners of the county.

“A lot of times we hear about young people who leave the county and never come back,” Todd Tucker said of keynote speaker and first-ever Entrepreneur of the Year award winner, Will Pfitzner. “His story is quite the opposite.”

Pfitzner is the NCSU alum who decided to pursue something he loved to do rather than the almighty dollar. His story “the local man does good and returns to Mayberry with much adulation” is a storybook affair and community leaders would love to see it replicated.

He also alluded to the fact that the traditional four-year university course is not for everyone. Therefore, programs such as YESurry create opportunities for students to consider a different path both for themselves and for Surry County.

These young adults put their skills to the test and although Grace Phillips took the win, the community as a whole could be the ultimate winner.

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