Walking through Chesterfield Mall, you may have stumbled upon the Spark! Incubator program storefront, a Parkway program powered by Maryville. Or perhaps you have read about these young entrepreneurs in West Newsmagazine.
The goal of the program is to give students the opportunity to develop businesses acumen and harness real-world experience through the creation of a product or service, the development of a business plan and the implementation of all the steps required to bring their ideas to life. Along the way, Spark! students are mentored by area professionals and Program Director Xanthe Meyer, who works with the students on a day-to-day basis.
“Maryville University has been one of our strategic partners in implementing the Spark! Incubator,” Meyer said. “They have invested financially in the Incubator space at Chesterfield Mall and have also provided access to community and industry resources for our students. In addition, they offer college credit for students enrolled in the Incubator.”
Around the first of the year, Meyer introduced social consciousness and this summer she offered Spark! students the chance to put what they learned into action.
“Many businesses support charitable organizations and we felt that Spark! should include that element as part of the teaching model,” Meyer explained.
Students selected the Rural Reconstruction Upper Primary (R.R.U.P.) School, established in 1936 in the village of Ullannur in the southern Indian state, Kerala, as the object of their philanthropic support. That connection came through mentor George John, president and CEO of Engineering Design Source, Inc., whose grandfather owns the government land on which the school sits.
But raising money wasn’t enough. Some of the students wanted to see R.R.U.P. First-hand.
The students were given a 30-day challenge to raise funds and split into two teams to add a level of friendly competition. The results were impressive.
The students raised $4,200 by selling donuts to a few Parkway elementary and middle schools; having “Penny Wars” (collection jars of loose change in classrooms) in Oak Brook, Highcroft Ridge and Hanna Woods elementary schools; and even some door-to-door candle sales by recent South High graduate Drew Rogers.
“A company gave us candles at wholesale prices for our Shine your Light campaign, which signifies shining your light in giving back,” Rogers explained.
The students also planned a small-scale trivia night, which brought in another $2,000.
This summer North High graduate Marisa Hacker, North High graduate Annalise Ruzicka, Rogers, West High senior Katie Hornsby and South High graduate Andrea Bauer traveled to Kerala, India with chaperones John, Meyer and Carl Trautmann, of Service Core of Retired Executives (SCORE), to visit R.R.U.P.
The students spent three days at the school, both engaging with the students through their planned “American Day” event and with school leadership by attending a board meeting, which Hornsby likened to a P.T.O. meeting.
“We wanted to see how we could effectively help the school while we were there and how our monetary donation could best be used,” Hornsby said.
The group visited feeder schools and immersed themselves in the culture. While the language barrier was definitely a challenge, the students used a more universal language to communicate.
“Smiles and laughter connected us in a profound way,” said Rogers. “The kids were in awe of us, perhaps being the first caucasians they had ever met. They treated us like movie stars.”
“The kids loved having their photos taken with us. The love for selfies must be universal,” Hacker said.
For John, watching the growth of the students reminded him of his own experiences as a new entrepreneur and said that “the trip was the cherry on top of the whole mentor experience.”
While the pilot year of Spark! is undoubtedly considered a resounding success, Meyer isn’t ready to stop to celebrate.
“Our program is expanding and the needs of our students will change. We must continue looking forward,” she said.
The established mentors, which in addition to John and Trautmann also include Todd Weinhaus, manager and partner of Pulse, Tony Spielberg, president of Red Label Accessories, and Kevin Meuret, owner of Low T St. Louis, are continuing their business and mentoring relationship with Spark! as Platinum Members. But Meyer added that there are other industry professionals who are valuable and critical to the continued success of the program.
“We have different levels of involvement and guest mentors have committed to judge pitch competitions or come in to speak to the kids about different topics,” Meyer said.
The Parkway Alumni Association (PAA) has played a key role for helping Spark! launch and intends on continued support in critical ways in the first few years.
“Through our business associations and alumni, we have connected Spark! with many of the mentors,” explained Jan Misuraca, executive director of PAA.
The Alumni Association also has agreed to pay for the first two years of rent ifor the mall workspace.
“It has been fun to see learning outside the classroom. We’re getting the kids into the real world before they finish school to understand the demands in real life,” Misuraca said.
Director of Choice Programs for Parkway, Dr. Jennifer Stanfill, was instrumental in creating Spark! and has many challenges ahead of her in the midst of expanding the program. In addition to the entrepreneurial program, three additional high school programs will fall under Spark! including the district’s Pre-Professional Health Sciences Academy at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital; Technology Solutions also at Chesterfield Mall; and Teaching & Learning at Highcroft Ridge Elementary. The Pre-Professional Health Sciences Academy is beginning its fourth-year, but was moved under the Spark! program since it also is immersion-based, professional learning. The other programs are new to Parkway.
“It is part of our mission to help the students meet the challenges of an ever-changing world. These strands align with our mission,” said Stanfill.
In the coming school year, the program will accommodate 34 students with four of the original 20 students returning as “Accelerators.” Among them is Hornsby, who found her true passion in India.
“I went into the Spark! program with a social media and marketing mindset. I am part of the National Charity League and found that my true passion lies with the social enterprise,” she said.
Hornsby will work with John on recruiting and preparing teachers for teaching at the R.R.U.P. school and will help develop a curriculum.
“We realized how unprepared we were during our short mission trip. I want to raise money for the school and help volunteers make the most of their time on their ventures,” Hornsby said.
She also envisions providing a segue between the incubator program and the Teaching & Learning branch.
In summing up the Spark! experience, Meyer also provides a framework for the group’s trip to India.
“The emphasis – the goal – has never been on the grade a student earns through work performance evaluations, evidence of networking, collaboration or the competitions and accountability reports,” stressed Meyer. “Whether they are an A student or a C student, we want to help develop their passions and build character.
“Our end goal is not to produce entrepreneurs but to make them valuable employees; to give them a true sense of what they are capable of and to empower them.”