HICKORY – From organic restaurants to child safety devices to solar powered backpacks, area students shared their ideas for the next big thing in business during the third annual Students With Attainable Goals (SWAG) presentation at the Ridgeview Recreation Center.

The program is a partnership between Catawba Valley Community College’s Small Business Center, the City of Hickory’s Ridgeview Recreation Department and K-9 Security.

It’s designed to introduce students between the ages of 14-18 to the concepts of entrepreneurship and the possibility of owning their own business. 

Local business owners Alex and Lisa Spruell helped found the program with the idea of creating opportunities for the next generation.

“You see in the news time and time again these kids have great ideas that can make them entrepreneurs at a young age, but they have to have access to the tools and knowledge they need to accomplish it,” Alex Spruell said. “A lot of these kids don’t have that access or know how to gain that access.”

The program lasts five weeks in the spring, usually starting in April, and it has evolved into a combination of classroom activities to help the students work on their own business ideas they pitch at the end of the program.

They have opportunities for field trips to local businesses and educational institutions to see businesses in action and learn about educational options they can take advantage of to further their entrepreneurial ideas. 

This year, the students visited Chick-Fil-A, Jackson Creative and the mechatronics and robotics program at CVCC.

They got to hear speakers like Sarah Prencipe (City of Hickory) talk about social media and marketing, Don Bledsoe talk about leadership, and Reggie Leath and Justin Harper explain how to make a positive presentation and impression.

The students use everything they learned to pitch their idea for a new business or product on the final day of the project to a panel of local business people.

The program has averaged around 12 students each year with many coming back a second time.

Hickory High freshman Jabarian Ikard is one of those students who was eager to go through SWAG again, and this year, he came up with a solar powered backpack.

“I like making random stuff, and I do it all the time so I figured why not do it here,” Ikard said.

His idea for the backpack came when he was walking home with a friend.

“We had some McDonald’s cups, and we had our book bags and were talking how we wished there was a cup holder on the strap so we could put it on there and walk with it,” Ikard said. “Then I thought, what if we just added more stuff to it like a charger port so you can charge your phone, stuff like that.”

Finding something to fix a problem was the theme for most of the student presenters.

Lauran Surratt, another Hickory High and HCAM freshman, also was in her second year with the program, and her pitch was for a device to help keep children safe in cars with special alarms to alert adults if something is wrong.

“This idea came from hearing on the news about children dying, and I wanted to have an idea to fix that problem,” Surratt said.

The previous year, she came up with an idea for a thumb print entry device for vehicles.

Surratt admits without the SWAG program she would never have developed her ideas into working concepts.

“The field trips we had and the people we got to see were really good experiences and chances to see what the process is and how much time goes into creating an idea,” Surratt said.

This year’s top three SWAG business ideas came from Julian Reinhardt, who received first place for his student music business; Jabarian Ikard, who received second for his solar powered backpack; and Nauria Mitchell, who received third for a natural food business.

Jeff Neuville, the CVCC Small Business Center director, helped establish the program on the community college’s side of the partnership.

“It’s important to open the eyes of our younger people in the community to the possibilities of entrepreneurship and business ownership and give them some idea on how they can pursue those ideas,” Neuville said. “I’m very impressed with the students who have been involved with the program.”

He’s seen the students grow as presenters and communicators of their ideas in the last three years.

“Each year, we’ve seen more thoughtful and interesting business ideas come from the students,” Neuville said.

The judges on this year’s panel were City of Hickory’s Dana Kaminske, Plush Kutz owner David Williams and retired banker Reggie Leath.

Primary financial support for SWAG came from the City of Hickory Business Development Committee and the L.B. Lane Family Foundation along with additional support from several other local businesses.

“The whole goal is to listen to these kids’ ideas, and find out what they want to do, and start getting them thinking about where they want to be in the future,” Alex Spruell said. “Not everyone is going to be an entrepreneur, but you can build their personal brand and encourage them to explore who they can be.”

For more information about the SWAG program, email CVCC’s Jeff Neuville at jneuville@cvcc.edu or call 828-327-7000.

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