By Anne Dewvall
NetWork Kansas YEC File photo
Even mighty oak trees sprout from a single acorn, and so it was with NetWork Kansas Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge Series. The acorn in this case was a handful of grassroots entrepreneurship fairs hosted in small, rural communities in northwest Kansas. A handful of high school students standing in a gymnasium in front of tri-fold display boards may not sound like much, but in a town of 400 people, realizing that literally 5% of the entire population was eagerly participating in an entrepreneurship competition was staggering. I was one of several members of our team who had been invited to judge the student business ideas over the years and what we saw was a simple concept that inspired creativity, confidence, entrepreneurial thinking, built connections in the community, and made us wonder, How could we do more of this?
I still remember the meeting where I pitched my big idea to Erik Pedersen, President of NetWork Kansas. The vision was of a statewide entrepreneurship competition for young Kansans that would provide hundreds of hands-on learning experiences for students building real or theoretical businesses. At the time, I was a product manager overseeing entrepreneurship programs for E-Communities, so it made sense for this to fall under my purview, but I am eternally glad it did, because this project energized me like nothing else.
We decided to take an entrepreneurial approach to our big idea, starting small and adapting to feedback as we grew. My pipe dream – the state competition – was an end goal, not a starting point, and we had a hunch that it really was more beneficial as a catalyst. The real magic would happen in communities across the state who would take ownership of their own youth entrepreneurship competitions, following a simple but unified model. The YEC Series was born.
In 2013, NetWork Kansas piloted the inaugural YEC Series, coordinating local-level hands-on entrepreneurship competitions for students in select northwest Kansas communities in grades 7-12. This first academic year saw 48 students from seven schools participate in local entrepreneurship competitions, with 20 of these students participating in the YEC Northwest Regional Championship NetWork Kansas hosted in Bird City. Student teams submitted a written executive summary and presented elevator pitches and a tradeshow booth to judges in the initial round of the competition. Six finalists also competed in a final round, with students winning $5,700 in prize money. Our small team helped plan and run every element of that competition, setting up tables, checking in students, taking photographs, and even picking up dishes at lunch. I still have photos of our rental car, packed to the ceiling with boxes of trade show tablecloths, certificates, information packets, and judges clipboards and scoresheets. It was a lot of work. But, nothing compares to the high of seeing a dream literally come to life before you. I still remember that first group of regional championship participants. Some have even gone on to open businesses of their own after college!
The goal of the YEC Series is to expose Kansas middle school and high school students to entrepreneurship, but students and communities seem to benefit in so many ways that the YEC Series started growing and has never stopped. Year after year, the YEC Series has added local events in both rural and urban communities to serve greater numbers of young people, driven by interest from local volunteers committed to providing their youth access to experiential entrepreneurship learning. The volunteers who organize local entrepreneurship competitions do a lot of work, yet I cannot count the number of times a judge or sponsor thanked me for the opportunity to be a part of the YEC Series. In the second year, 121 students participated in 11 community-level competitions, and NetWork Kansas added a second regional championship in southeast Kansas. Years three and four saw the regional championships develop into a state championship, coordinated with Kansas State University (K-State) and Fort Hays State University, respectively. The YEC Series became a big part of NetWork Kansas outreach, spurring the addition of Amara Kniep, who has overseen the YEC Series growth for many years now, to the E-Community team, and YEC Season turned into a busy travel time as E-Community staff helped communities with planning and judging duties.
The idea of a state championship continued to be important to our vision and the sustainability of the YEC Series, and In the K-State Center for Entrepreneurship, NetWork Kansas found a long term partner for the YEC Series with an equally bold vision for the state. Now, the Kansas Entrepreneurship Challenge (KEC) is an annual event for the top young entrepreneurs in Kansas. The KEC is notable for its use of a mock board room competition format, where students answer critical thinking questions from a panel of judges and compete against themselves to earn ratings as they compete for prize money. Even as an adult, going to K-State for the annual KEC feels like such an event and I am so grateful that youth entrepreneurship has such an inspiring and impeccably organized state championship to honor the work of so many educators, students, and other community members.
Over the past nine years, NetWork Kansas has diligently worked to develop tools to make youth entrepreneurship competitions easier to run and more effective. One of these tools is VentureDash. There are some things that even a fully-decked-out spreadsheet cant do, and as the YEC Series grew, our technological growing pains did as well and we expanded into a tool called the YEC Portal for a few years to test solutions to common pain points for entrepreneurship competitions before partnering with Moonbase Labs to build a software platform. Launched in 2020, VentureDash is an online platform to create, host, and run entrepreneurship competitions. The web-based app is a central hub for everyone involved in an entrepreneurship competition, with a registration system, marketing tools, online judging, and a wealth of resources. Today, most YEC Series competitions use VentureDash, and many other entrepreneurship competitions across the country do as well.
Today, local YEC Series events require students to prepare an executive summary and four-minute presentation, and often feature interactive trade shows or elevator pitches. Students compete for awards and prizes and their work is judged by local entrepreneurs, public sector partners, teachers, and other community members. The first place business idea at each local YEC Series competition qualifies to compete at the KEC state championship. Up to fifteen additional business ideas can earn the right to participate at the KEC state championship through a wildcard application process.
During 2020-2021, 898 students from more than seventy Kansas schools participated in forty-four local entrepreneurship competitions as part of the YEC series. The 2021-2022 academic year marks the ninth annual YEC series coordinated by NetWork Kansas and the E-Community Partnership. Fifty-four local events in Kansas cities and counties will culminate in a state championship hosted at Kansas State University on April 28, 2022.
The YEC Series started as a grassroots competition in a school gymnasium in a tiny town in northwest Kansas. Over the years, those grassroots spread and now 1,000 students across the state from communities of all sizes participate in a unified championship series, connecting all of Kansas through youth entrepreneurship. It is exactly what I dreamed, and yet still somehow staggering to contemplate, unless you realize that it works because of the many hundreds of people working together every year to bring a wonderful opportunity to the young people who call their community home. The YEC Series has become something we cant help but feel is growing a brighter future for our state.
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