Sixteen high school entrepreneurs pitched their business ideas to a panel of judges to solicit funding for their enterprise during the sixth annual Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) Investor Panel at Staten Island Technical High School.
The panel faced the tough task of selecting only one winner from so many extraordinary ideas before choosing Ellie Vaserman’s concept of an edible spoon for representation at the 11th Annual Saunders Scholars National Competition on May 3 at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
“This is definitely so exciting. I came here for the experience to present my idea on a larger scale. This is so amazing especially since this is for a good cause. I hope I can continue my success,” said the Staten Island Tech sophomore.
The win capped the 15-year-old’s hard work and determination during the Program, which is organized by the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce Foundation with Con Edison as the presenting sponsor.
For 20 weeks, students from various Staten Island high schools met at Staten Island Tech to learn an array of business facets ranging from insurance to marketing. The participants gained unique insight courtesy of local business tours and guest speakers from numerous business leaders from the Island.
“The students did a fantastic job with all their presentations and showed tremendous growth from the start of the program. They were all dedicated and enthusiastic about their ideas,” said Chamber president and CEO Linda Baran. “We want to thank the numerous business mentors for taking the time out of their busy schedules to meet and work with these students and give them advice on business and life skills. This year, we had even more participation in the Program and that makes me proud because it shows there are younger entrepreneurs on Staten Island trying to make positive impacts in their communities and beyond.”
The YEA! program is divided into two, 10-week installments. The first 10 weeks is the “Big Idea,” which entails brainstorming, proof of concept, and the beginning stages of the business plan. The second half is when students finalize their business plan and prepare presentations for investors during “The Pitch.”
The program managers – which were Kim Powers Burbano and Joyce Venezia Suss – as well as instructors and mentors encourage students to use their own passions for their business model.
Vaserman’s volunteer work served as her inspiration.
“When I was cleaning my local park, I found so much waste from single-use plastics. I wanted to find an easy, local way to get rid of that waste,” said the Clove Lakes resident.
That experience inspired the Staten Island Tech sophomore to develop E-Tensils, the edible utensil company that bakes gluten-free alternatives to replace single-use plastics in a delicious way.
“Not only will you have a whole new way to savor your food, but you can also do this while reducing your carbon footprint,” said Vaserman during her presentation.
While Vaserman acknowledged the edible spoon faces current competition, she diligently researched most of those sales were made to fine dining markets with overseas production. She explained that since 20 percent of Staten Island adults shop for food products online, there is a local market for her product.
“Ellie had a great business concept right out of the gate, but every week she took it one step further by embracing the entire process. She came in every week even more prepared and improved her business plan,” said Michael Porpora, vice president at RPM Insurance and the first segment instructor of the YEA! Program.
“Ellie was passionate from day one. She was the first one to raise her hand with any questions. She amazed us throughout the program. She was very dedicated,” said Danielle Reyes, the co-founder of three companies — Wealth and Legacy Group, Lions Pride Leadership, and I Am Empowering – and the second segment instructor.
Vaserman’s confidence was on full display as she confidently supplied details about E-Tensils during the event as students aimed to secure funding by presenting their business idea in front of a Shark Tank-like Investors Panel.
Staten Island Deputy Borough President Ed Burke was this year’s emcee. The panel included: Dean Balsamini, Director of the Small Business Development Center at the College of Staten Island; Ralph Branca, President and CEO of Victory State Bank; Katia Gordon, Director of Staten Island Regional & Community Affairs for Con Edison; Phil Guarnieri, Chief Executive Officer at Empire State Bank; Elizabeth Segal, Executive Director of NYC External Affairs at AT&T; and Frank Wilkinson, Chairman of the Rab Wilkinson Foundation and owner of Rab’s Country Lanes.
Gordon served as an instructor the first two years before moving into Investor Panel judging. With that experience, she sees first-hand the importance of the YEA! Program and the lasting impact on the students.
“Con Edison has been a proud sponsor since the inception of the program because it helps students hone in on their critical thinking and presentation skills,” she said. “It helps them gain a perspective of all aspects of business. It gives them confidence by building relationships with their mentors, instructors, and the community.”
New York State Senator Andrew Lanza and Verizon served as program sponsors while scholarship sponsors were Lions Pride Leadership Company, the Rab Wilkinson Foundation, and Wealth & Legacy Group.
In addition to Vaserman, this year’s participants and their companies were: Elizabeth Akindeko (Tiger); Esther Bilenkin (Bee Buzz); Aleksandra Chechkinov (Language Learners); Valerie Chen (Easy Buds); Matt Geary (Information Delivery System); Anya Hacene (Toys Stories); Andrei Klepatch (Tabletop Prints); Aiden Lublinsky (Aiden’s Arms); Sierra Molino (Mane Roots); Tishaun Singleton (Desqit); Ryan Sliger (Fine Point Focus); Nick Stoll (Off the Rip); Tanayah Thomas (Vycious Minds); Stacey Tuller (Girls Guiding Girls); and Selina Zheng (Jubilee Book Boxes).