Teen entrepreneurs try conceiving their own businesses

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Creative confab: Guilderland seniors Ahmer Shahzad, left, Ben Shah, and Aaron Ashery discuss their idea for a tablet integrated into a desk, on which a student could draw an idea in a math or science class that would then appear on a screen, visible to the class.

GUILDERLAND — A competition is underway for teams of teens pitching products they’ve invented. One team wants to help special-education students focus; another wants to help households keep track of needed groceries.

Arnav Kannan, a Guilderland High School senior who wants to be a tech entrepreneur, came up with the idea of an event in which high-school students would work with business mentors to develop and pitch their ideas for startups.

Fifty-five high-school students from Guilderland, Voorheesville, Shaker, Averill Park, South Glens Falls, Saratoga, Emma Willard, and P-Tech gathered in a conference room in the University at Albany’s Campus Center on Jan. 27, working in small teams to come up with marketing plans for the new products they had conceived.

Kannan contacted a lot of people, to suggest the idea of this high-school business incubator event, and “got rejected a bunch of times,” he said.

Finally, he said, he heard back from Robert Manasier, who is “entrepreneur-in-residence” at an organization called 518 Innovate and its affiliated partner, the UAlbany Innovation Center.

“He thought it was a great idea,” Kannan said, referring to Manasier.

Manasier said he has started 130 companies around the globe to date, and that he started his first company — a landscaping business for commercial and apartment buildings — when he was 13 years old. He hired his baseball and football teammates — “They were older than I was” — and the work put all of them through college.

The activities at this event are similar to those done at startup weekends Manasier runs for people from the community; he has had people from age 13 to 82 take part in those, he said. The idea of the event is to let participants “touch and feel” the work of an entrepreneur “before they commit money to college or to starting a business,” Manasier said.

One important skill that students practice is being able to speak coherently about their own ideas, he said, adding, “It’s a safe environment to try. Better to try when your job’s not on the line.”

Another adult who was in on the planning from the start was Joan McGrath, who advises Guilderland High School’s Investing Club. Kannan approached her in June, she said, to see if she would help him organize the program; he then approached outside sources from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University at Albany, and the Center for Economic Growth: Capital Region.

Altogether, McGrath said, “We had 10 mentors working with the students directly in their groups.”


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Boys brainstorm: Four Guilderland ninth-graders discuss their product idea: a “Smart Cabinet” that would help homeowners shop for groceries more efficiently by reminding them when they are almost out of certain food items. From left are Burhan Brula, Arham Sial, Aidan Doyle, and Suhan Suresh. 


The day-long event on Jan. 27 was broken into 20- or 30-minute activity periods in which teams completed tasks such as profiling their target consumers, including gender, age, income, and other factors, and came up with concise mission statements akin to Nike’s “Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”

After each activity, teams presented their ideas to the others.

One team from Guilderland — freshmen Burhan Brula, Arham Sial, Aidan Doyle, and Suhan Suresh — came up with an idea for a “Smart Cabinet” that would help homeowners shop for groceries more efficiently by reminding them when they are almost out of certain food items. The cabinet would have places for specific items, with built-in sensors.

Another team from Guilderland — brothers Shashank Shamshabad, a freshman, and Sidharth Shamshabad, a junior — worked on a plan for Phoenix, a voice-recognition technology for emergency situations that would connect users to the appropriate first responders without any need for dialing.

A team from Shaker High School — Faiyaj Khan and Jeremy Chen — devised a compartment, fitted with ultraviolet lights at the top and bottom, for their antibacterial properties, that would disinfect children’s toys without using chemicals. They said that their target market included parents — “maybe first-time parents” — as well as “germaphobes and hypochondriacs.”

Students are now working with their mentors to create videos describing what their products will do and why they are necessary.

The judges will view and evaluate those videos and then watch teams pitch their products to them in person at the finals on Feb. 27.

The total score for the video pitch and the in-person pitch will determine the winners, Manasier said.

Prizes will be awarded but have not yet been determined. “That’s what February’s for,” Manasier said.

Manasier noted that the organizers want to avoid cash prizes, because of the contestants’ ages. He said that prizes will be determined by the event’s sponsors and will probably be business services and products.

The event’s organizers had to turn teams away this year, said Guilderland’s McGrath. She added, “We have people already asking us, ‘What’s the date for next year?’”



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