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Spark! catches fire in Parkway School District

Inside Parkway's Spark! incubator in Chesterfield Mall.

Inside Parkway’s Spark! incubator in Chesterfield Mall.

It’s only been a year since the Parkway School District ignited its Spark! Incubator program inside Chesterfield Mall, but the program powered by Maryville University has caught fire in a good way.

“Maryville University has been one of our strategic partners in implementing the Spark! Incubator,” explained Program Director Xanthe Meyer. “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.”

Inside that space, entrepreneurs are hard at work developing a babysitting company, creating a “popcorn straw,” working on a clothing business, fixing cellphones and so much more.

Twenty juniors and seniors from Parkway high schools participated in this off-campus learning environment, driven by their personal passions. For students like South High 2015 graduate Jack Koury, the program was an extension of a business he was already pursuing on his own.

“I had a profitable business (before Spark!) repairing laptop computers, X-box consoles, and phones of all types. Spark! was a chance to work outside of the normal classroom both physically and educationally. It was a feeling of freedom and responsibility that you wouldn’t have in a classroom. It also gave me the chance to polish my business model and learn what is involved in running a professional business,” Koury explained.

Koury said that industry professionals like Carl Trautmann of Service Core of Retired Executives (SCORE) volunteers were critical in offering practical advice and direction in their business pursuits.

North High senior Marisa Hacker, who partnered with Annalise Ruzicka to develop the popcorn straw, said that mentor Kevin Meuret was a key supporter.

“Mr. Meuret taught us not just to look at the details of our business pursuits, but to grow from the successes (and failures) and learn what our personal strengths and weaknesses are in business,” Hacker said.

Meuret had never mentored in this capacity and saw this as an opportunity to grow the individual, more than the business.

“As I do with my children, I want to teach these students to be honest, hard-working and have good work ethics. Even the brightest and motivated of kids want to be rescued,” he said. “When they are at a crossroad, as their mentor I want to show them how to take ownership and problem-solve.”

While Koury plans to continue his business model as a freshman at Southeast Missouri State University, many students like South High graduate Drew Rogers, did not find success in the business sense with their entrepreneurial endeavors.

“I changed directions a few times and never found my passion with either project. But what I learned was invaluable,” Rogers said. “The program revealed the real world and changed my perspective of what it means to be an entrepreneur. It opened my eyes to the realities of the hard work it takes to be successful and what possibilities are out there for me.”

Hacker shared Rogers’ sentiment when the popcorn straw idea she and Ruzicka developed that showed promise early on, fizzled to a stand-still. For now, they have no plans to further pursue the project.

“I have so much more confidence engaging with others, whether networking or simply making a business call. I have learned how to have real conversations with adults and advocate for myself,” she said.

South High student John Yucesoy also will be continuing in the program with classmate Colin Waites to further their United States of Apparel clothing line. Last year the company included Blaine Thomas and Brett Darland, who both graduated from South High in May and exited the company. Yucesoy learned a lot from the immersion in the program and hopes it will guide him going forward.

“A Spark! motto we began to adopt became ‘learning to pivot’ because every week we were forced to pivot or change an aspect of our business to make it keep working,” he said. “One thing I learned, that was stressed since the beginning, was that there are no failures. Each ‘failure,’ especially at this age, is simply a learning experience. We learned what not to do or how not to handle a situation for our next push or next idea even.”

The students were not the only ones singing the program’s praises. As a key mentor Tony Spielberg, president of Red Label Accessories, found this partnership to be a wonderful learning experience.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this in this capacity: Kids seeking so much knowledge and wanting to learn. I am learning how to engage the students at their level; explaining things in layman’s terms so they can truly understand,” he said.

Next year, the four remaining Spark! participants will welcome new entrepreneurs into their midst, and the program will grow to 34 students from its inaugural 20.

Cathy Kelly, Parkway’s Communications Coordinator, describes Spark! as “simply amazing.”

“It’s incredible to think about all that the program and its students have accomplished – and it’s only Spark!’s first year!” Kelly exclaimed.

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