Program whips teens’ business skills into shape
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Connor Hack had a few unexpected guests when he last filmed a video for his YouTube Channel.
On a recent trip to the park, Hack toted along a braided nylon bullwhip, intricately plaited work of art that it is, slowly unfurled it from its snakelike coil, carefully weaved it in the air, pulled it gingerly back in an arc behind him and then nimbly flicked it forward, a crisp, loud, echoing “WHHHICKKK!!!” reverberating in waves through the ether.
Hack was filming a bullwhip tutorial.
“All of a sudden, I hear sirens in the background. … I’ve had the cops called on me several times,” said Connor.
The sound of a bullwhip cracking through the air, as it turns out, can sound a lot like gunfire.
It’s just the price of doing business for the teen-aged nylon bullwhip maker and founder of Caliber Whips.
He is one of the young entrepreneurs – almost a dozen home-schoolers ages 13 to 18 — who recently completed a pilot program by Grand Canyon University’s New Business Development Center. The center wanted to test an online version of the entrepreneurship training it usually offers face-to-face to the community surrounding the campus. At the same time, the University’s Strategic Educational Alliances wanted to find an educational opportunity for home-school students.
The seven-week home-schooler business training series was a collaboration between the center and SEA, which supports kindergarten through 12th-grade students and educators with programs, events and grants to foster a college-ready culture.
Each week, the home-schoolers received an email from NBDC Director Eduardo Borquez that contained a link to a video of him giving the same type of training he offers to the west Phoenix business community. Students had a week to complete homework attached in the email. They then converged on campus about four of the seven weeks to meet with the center’s student ambassadors for a two-hour, on-site session based on the NBDC’s Business Purpose Canvas, a business model that takes entrepreneurs from an idea to a developed plan rather than just going from an idea to directly opening a business.
Students learned about everything from Conscious Capitalism to customer relationships, distributor channels, value proposition and more.
All those weeks of training led up to this: final business pitches by the students in front of an audience of parents, grandparents, student ambassadors and GCU administrators.
Students gave 10-minute presentations about the business they hoped to start, how they would reach their intended audience, what resources would be best to tap into, who the key stakeholders might be, what it would cost to produce their product, what their revenue stream might be, and even how they would get out of the business if they wanted to move on to other things.
Connor started building do-it-yourself weapons a couple of years ago and honed his skills enough to start Caliber Whips, a high-end bullwhip business. He has gained some buzz in the whip community via his YouTube channel, which touts more than 1,200 subscribers.
“People have asked me if I plan on doing this for a living,” he said, acknowledging that very few people make whips as their primary source of income. “I don’t know how far this will go, but for now, it gives me a little spending money.”
Animation fan Landon Hack’s dream is to start his own high-quality movie studio. He spoke of needing to find employees who share his values in making quality movies and to find investors.
“Animated films cost $150 million to pay for everything,” he said.
Borquez advised Landon, “I want to challenge you to disrupt how movies are made. Challenge the status quo. For example, I thought nothing could disrupt the taxi business, and Uber has done that.”
Netflix has been a disruptor to businesses such as Blockbuster, and so has Amazon, he said, which has branched out with Amazon Studios and Amazon Cargo Airlines.
Kaitlyn Walker, 14, presented her idea for painted shoes, showing off an example of her work, a pair of white canvas shoes painted with images from the film “Cars 3.”
“Do you have a list of movies you do?” one parent asked.
Another asked, “Are you looking at other types of shoes?”
Borquez said, “Just a suggestion. I would encourage you to develop a relationship with cause organizations, Susan G. Komen (cancer walks) or Mothers Against Drunk Driving (for example). … How cool would it be to buy shoes, too, for an event. I believe you have endless possibilities.”
Business-minded Isaac Castellanos, who loves comic books, is looking at putting together a business called The Comic Vault. He’s starting out with a website to sell comics.
“I will have free shipping. … I’m a very passionate comic-buyer myself,” he said, adding that he wants to fix one pet peeve of his when it comes to many comic book businesses: He wants to arrange comics in a way that makes sense to comic-buyers – by genre and not alphabetically.
“They’re not organized at all. Mine will have very good prices.”
Castellanos, sporting a Comic Vault T-shirt, already has thought of starting a birthday club for loyal patrons and has hosted monthly teen-type hangouts and Marvel movie marathons to build his audience.
Borquez reminded the young entrepreneurs the importance of offering an exceptional experience and shared what Starbucks founder Howard Shultz once said, that Starbucks doesn’t just sell coffee. Its founder has said, “We provide an experience that happens to come with a cup of coffee. As an altrnative example, Borquez discussed how Disney is all about the experience. I think if you focus on the experience, you will convert (non comic-book buyers to comic-book buyers).”
A final group of home-schoolers made up of Heather, Hannah and Taylor Piatt and Walter, Sophie and Leo Hoffa – applied the Business Purpose Canvas to the nonprofit they founded, Youth for Troops, which helps veterans and their families with care packages and more.
“It came from a passion we all had,” Taylor said of the youth-led group.
He said they aren’t sure how they might be involved as they get older and go away to college but that their exit strategy seemed like a given: “That’s kind of the thing. We’re youth-led,” and so a new generation of youth could continue the nonprofit.
Borquez said the New Business Development Center came about, in part, as yet another way to transform and uplift the community GCU calls home.
“How about if we give them (the community) something no one can take away? How about we give them an education?”
And so the center supports the business community – usually 34- to 54-year-olds, many of whom have not finished high school – with no-cost business training and consultancy. The business trainings are offered in English and Spanish, though the NBDC is thinking of adding workshops in other languages as well. The NBDC has been asked to helm these workshops in communities that are farther away from campus, an opportunity to test the technology.
“What we did these last seven weeks (with the home-school students) was business modeling. For every 10 businesses that are started, eight of them are going to fail,” Borquez said, and so it’s important to develop the kind of business model the NBDC touts rather than just an idea, adding how there’s a systemic approach and process to entrepreneurship.
He told the home-school entrepreneurs that failing is OK: “From failure, there’s learning.”
Isaac Castellanos’ mom, Jennifer, said this pilot workshop has helped her son feel empowered.
“So many people say, ‘I want to be an entrepreneur.’ They shoot you down,” she said, but she and Isaac have looked around and met people during these sessions who are entrepreneurs.
Isaac said he learned just how to be able to reach customers.
“You can’t just say, ‘Hi, what’s your name?’ then make them buy your product.”
Heather Piatt of Youth for Troops said one big takeaway for her is knowing it is OK to fail.
“They said fail quickly so you can learn quickly,” she said. “I feel like I’m a perfectionist. … But that definitely was a helpful part.”
Borquez said the next step for the pilot program is to evaluate the results, make improvements and offer it again.
Sheila Jones, Program Manager of SEA, saw the collaboration between SEA and the NBDC as a way “to showcase the phenomenal creativity, motivation and heart for the community that our local home-school students have” and was proud of their growth over the seven-week pilot program.
Tacy Ashby, Senior Vice President of SEA, said, “We would want to weave entrepreneurship in everything we do,” relating that GCU President Brian Mueller would say this about the heart and soul of what GCU believes in: youth and entrepreneurship.
You can reach senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at 602-639-7901 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.