BY COURTENAY EDELHART,
Californian staff writer
Lacey Congdon is only 18 years old, but the Centennial High School senior is already the chief executive officer of a nationally recognized camera company.
She and four other classmates ranked third last month at a national competition in New York City for the best business plan, which students submitted in writing and also presented orally to a panel of judges who asked them questions afterward.
The companies exist only in cyberspace, but the work that goes into building them is very real. Along with a business plan, students create collateral materials such as human resources manuals and marketing campaigns, and their companies trade with other teams online and compete with them for virtual sales. Students also staff off-line booths at physical trade fairs.
“It’s a lot of hard work, and there are a lot of different challenges you have to face, but it’s definitely worth it,” said Congdon, who hopes to major in business in college. “It’s all hands on. It’s not just in a book. And I get to run my own business.”
There has only been a national Virtual Enterprises Business Plan competition for six years, but virtual companies have operated at California high schools since the late 1990s.
In every national competition since the event’s inception, a Bakersfield team has made it to the finals. In fact, despite presentations by more than 100 teams from 20 states, it almost always comes down to California vs. New York.
This year, Staten Island schools took first and second place. Centennial came in third with Picture This, a virtual seller of camcorders, digital cameras and scrapbook supplies. Each team member won an iPod Touch.
Bakersfield High School made it to the final round of six along with schools from South Pasadena and Brooklyn. BHS entered with The Source, a virtual electronics store.
Ridgeview, East Bakersfield and Stockdale have also qualified for the national competition in past years.
There’s an emerging rivalry between Centennial and BHS, which are regulars in the state and national finals. Last year, BHS took first place nationally.
“The last two years they have given us a run for our money,” said Centennial coordinator Tamara Combs. “It’s a friendly competition. We admire each other and respect each other. We just force each other to raise the bar every year.”
BHS coordinator Jacob Stuebbe enjoys the challenge. “People have caught on to this and the program is gaining momentum,” he said. “It’s getting tougher and tougher every year.”
It helps local schools that the administrator for the entire state is based in Bakersfield. Nancy Phillips, California network state coordinator for Virtual Enterprise, has an office at the Kern High School District Regional Occupational Center.
The state competition at which California schools qualify for nationals is in Bakersfield, too, along with the state trade fair.
Phillips said she goes to great lengths to recruit judges from across the state to avoid the appearance of bias, so Bakersfield schools have earned their spot among the nation’s most elite teams.
“We just have amazing school coordinators who work with the kids after school and on weekends and a ton of support from the business community, which brings its real world experience to help judge, critique the kids’ plans and give them feedback on their presentations,” Phillips said.
Students learn from executives from AT&T, Bank of America, Chevron, Kern Schools Federal Credit Union, Wells Fargo and Wormsworth Inc., among others.
Managers from Best Buy worked with BHS virtual electronics store The Source, for instance.
“We learned sales techniques from them and they taught us all about electronics and retail,” said senior Elizabeth Castillo, 18. “It was really helpful because we’re teenagers, so we know about using electronics, but not how to sell them.”
The program is designed to make the experience as realistic as possible so students experience the highs of beating sales projections, the lows of falling short, and even the boredom of the more mundane tasks of running a business.
“I had one of the easier divisions to manage,” said Centennial High School senior Christopher Picapo, 17, who served as the chief financial officer of Picture This. “It’s basically a bunch of busy work, managing the invoices and paying the bills.”
In fact, virtual corporate America was a little too realistic for BHS senior Miguel Rocha, 18, who after serving as chief executive officer of The Source is rethinking his plans to pursue a business career.
“I’ve learned the real side of business, and it’s really cutthroat,” he said. “I was originally planning to pursue a business career, but now I’m thinking I’d like to teach economics.”
Still, he says the experience is already paying dividends in real life. The sales skills he acquired helped him land a real job with a clothing retailer at Valley Plaza.
That’s one of the reasons Claudia Aquino, chief executive officer of Wormsworth Inc., volunteers her time to work with students.
“It’s really a phenomenal program,” she said. “Not only does it teach students about business, but it teaches them high levels of cooperation, event planning, working in groups, working with people you don’t necessarily like to achieve a common goal. There is no other high school elective they will work this hard at and gain so much from.”
Those life skills will help students no matter what they do after graduation, said volunteer Joe Audello, vice president and senior business relationship manager at Wells Fargo Bank.
“Not everyone will go on to college, and not everyone will have a career in business, but no matter what field you go into, even if you work in government, these business concepts are concepts you’re going to need to understand,” he said. “They are going to make you a better employer, and they’re going to make you a better employee.”
Original Story | The Bakersfield Californian