This story is by Akhil Kambhammettu. Akhil is a high school student who interned with Built Oregon last summer and is currently writing stories about youth entrepreneurship for us. He wrote a story on the Portland fashion scene last fall.
With numerous resources at one’s disposal, Portland is the place to be for entrepreneurs and creatives. Entrepreneurs are exposed to a network of many others just like them, and are surrounded by successful incubators such as the Portland Incubator Experiment and Forge Portland.
Businesses that are just starting out can also receive support and investment from companies like Portland Seed Fund and Craft3, and with the growing popularity of startups and the independent lifestyle that comes with it, entrepreneurship has been attracting kids who are looking for ways to put their unique and independent ideas into viable businesses, as well as to make their passion their job.
Entrepreneurship programs have been successfully been implemented into youth programs and schools such as IUrban Teen and Portland State University. Clearly, entrepreneurship has gained a big youth following. One educational program that stands among the others is the Catlin Gabel Startup Camp. In fact, it’s not even an “educational” program.
Startup Camp is a weekend long camp where high school students gather and work together at Catlin Gabel in a “dungeon” mode, building a company from scratch to finish, ending in a pitch to judges in competition for the top prize. Yes, these kids build a company from scratch to finish in the course of one weekend.
I attended their third annual startup camp from October 16-18, 2015 and was able to observe my fellow young entrepreneurs. They gathered in small makeshift workspaces set up in classrooms across the school, with snacks and drinks strewn across the tables. But most importantly, the students were running around hurriedly with a razor focus on the task at hand. I had never seen such a chaotic yet beautiful scene. As busy as they were, I was able to snag a couple minutes from some of the students to talk to about their experiences here and outside with entrepreneurship.
First I met with Miles Cowen, a freshman at Catlin Gabel, who was attending startup camp for the first time. Miles was exposed to the entrepreneurial world through his internship over the summer at Aerial Technology International ,where he helped build drones. Miles explains that he came into camp very excited, and although he was sometimes overwhelmed by the chaos he was never discouraged, and found the environment to be quite energizing. Miles joined a company called Moneta, pitched by Emma Hayward, a junior at Catlin Gabel.
Miles noted “Moneta is like the opposite of Ebay. The idea is to have someone say I want to buy this for his amount of money”. From there, customers can bid for the buyer’s business. When asked what Miles enjoyed most about his first year at camp, he explains, “It was fun to have no teacher or supervision of any sort. You really got to do what you wanted to do.”
Next I talked to a team representative from the company Mind Matters, A company that helps connect students with lecturers who were coming to their area. As I walk into their makeshift office (one of the classrooms), I see multiple students grouped together either in intense discussion, writing on the whiteboard under their mentor’s watchful eye, or scrambling around for some supplies. I manage to get ahold of one of their team members and sit him down for a couple questions.
When asked about his personal experience at Startup Camp, he pauses for a moment to gather his thoughts, and a slight smile appears across his face when he explains, “It feels very real, it’s not like school where people tell you to do things and you do them. You choose your own path… and do what you think is best for yourself and the team.” But his experience was not without struggle. “With it being a new experience and a new way to work, there is no right answer. We have to stay organized and come to agreement on a lot of things. We had to make a lot of compromises”.
I also met with Anirud Venigalla, a junior from Sunset High School on team Clear Park. Anirud explains that Clear Park was actually a combination of two ideas. One aspect was an application that showed open parking spaces near your destination and allowed you to reserve them if it is possible. The other allowed users to rent out their own home parking spaces for other people to use. This idea stood out among the others because it allowed normal people to provide a service to others for profit.
The idea was also scalable and applicable almost anywhere people had parking spaces. Clear Park pulls in revenue by simply taking a cut of the fee paid by the renter of the parking space. But like every other company at Startup Camp, Clear Park faced its own struggles. Anirud said, “Leadership was a huge challenge in our team. We struggled to establish a team dynamic at first, but figured it out as we continued to work on the company. I think it takes some time for all teams to settle down, but at a certain point you either know the team is going to work out, or you guys aren’t meant for each other.”
I continued to walk down through the classrooms, meeting members from each team. For the most part, the CEO’s were very busy because they were the only ones who would be presenting for the competition later in the evening. There were two companies that stood out to me as unique and innovative: Macca Milk and Music Match. Both these companies had a goal of targeting youth, making their products relatable and appealing. Both of the company CEO’s leveraged their ability to think from the mind of a teenager, making them all the more lovable and hip.
Macca Milk is a company that made milk out of Macadamia nuts. When talking to the team, it was clear that they had done extensive research before starting the company: “Macadamia nuts use much less water to grow than almonds for almond milk, and more and more people are drinking milk substitutes. Our target demographic is the younger generation of kids who are looking for something unique to drink while also staying healthy. We wanted to make being healthy cool and hip.” Clearly, Macca Milk is not aiming to create just a product, but a lifestyle and culture around healthy living.
On the other side of the school I met with Marissa Natrajan, the co-founder of Music Match, who created the company along with her brother Neil. As she oversees her friends creating the website, Marisa explains the idea behind music match: “The idea was to create an app that allows users to link up with people with the same music taste.” Their inspiration came from the growing popularity of music streaming apps such as Pandora, Spotify, and Soundcloud. But Marisa saw a gap in the current solutions: There was no way for a listener to meet people with similar music tastes. She wanted to find a way to combine the experience of getting music recommendations from these people, and music streaming.
For the competition, Music Match was able to create a mockup of the app online. Marisa shows Music Match’s mass appeal when she asks the audience, “Who here has ever asked a friend for a music recommendation”, and everyone raises their hand. Although they have a long ways to go, Music Match definitely has potential to continue past Startup Camp.
I got a few minutes to sit down and chat with Meredith Goddard, one of the organizers of Startup Camp and also a teacher at Catlin Gabel. “Our mission is to teach entrepreneurship not in a classroom, but in a experiential setting, giving kids the opportunity to put their learnings immediately into action.” Startup Camp is an annual event and this is the third one to date. “The inspiration really comes from the parents, volunteers, mentors, and most of all, the students.”
When asked about future plans for Startup Camp, Meredith explains, “We want to expand to 200 kids, and also limit it to 15 spots per school so that students get equal opportunities for coming to startup camp. We also want to host clinics for coding and engineering a month in advance, so kids can learn some of the skills they may need during the actual weekend.” I thank Meredith for her time and go to take my seat before the presentations start.
For their presentations, each company got five minutes to pitch their company to the judges, and at the end, all the companies gathered together for a 15 minute group question time. The judges included Michael Gray of Globesherpa, Lynn Le, founder of Society Nine, and Lisa Herlinger, founder of Ruby Jewel Ice Cream.
Fast forward two hours and Clear Park is crowned the winner of Startup Camp 3.0! Not only does the team get bragging rights, but also gets to take an all-expenses paid day trip to San Francisco to meet with the heads of Rothenberg Ventures, a venture capital firm. I meet up with the CEO of Clear Park while he hugs his team members and he says, “I am just glad all our hard work paid off. But more than anything I am proud of my team and all that we accomplished this weekend.” According to Anvesh Venigalla of Moneta, the experience of camp was the biggest award he could have gotten: “More than the awards and recognition, I’m glad I got the opportunity to work my hardest with my team and prove that if you really set your mind to something, you can create anything.”
Although it was just a weekend, Startup Camp made more of an impact on these high schoolers than any time in the classroom could have. They were able to put their ideas and brainchild into real practice, and gain valuable mentorship from professionals. Most of all, Startup Camp fostered the next generation of entrepreneurs, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store next year.