Feature story: Pitching their products

Seventh-grade girls go before venture capitalists to tout laptop skins, Scrabble necklaces

Allie Caccamo is vice president for manufacturing of Silli Skinz, a startup that makes "protective coverings" for laptops.

She's also in middle school.

Sunday night at the Computer History Museum, Allie and her fellow seventh-graders from The Girls' Middle School in Mountain View were to present their business plans to a panel of real venture capitalists in the school's annual Entrepreneurial Night.

Last week the girls rehearsed their pitches at the school, practicing eye contact, speech clarity, graphic presentations, posture, messaging and more.

"We first tried contact paper, but that resulted in air bubbles and left residue on the laptops," Allie explained, her voice amplified by a microphone.

"Then we found vinyl cling film that sticks using static electricity ... leading to the flawless final product that we're proud to present today."

In the rear of the room, teacher Tricia Kellison and parent volunteer Renate Steiner, both Palo Alto residents, offered professional tips.

"The length is really good -- you've done a great job cutting things out, but, Allie, you're still reading," Kellison said.

"It's a great script. You need to say it to the audience, not read it."

Can entrepreneurship be taught to middle-school girls?

Will the experience of selling homemade laptop covers or necklaces made from Scrabble pieces change the way they think?

Leaders at The Girls' Middle School are betting on it. The year-long Entrepreneurial Program has been mandatory for all seventh-graders since the independent school's founding 12 years ago.

"Young women are often excluded from the whole language of business, and this is an opportunity to get them started," explained Kellison, who came to the school from Apple Computer when her daughter was a student there and now leads the Entrepreneurial Program.

"Maybe they'll look at the world a little differently. If they see something that's needed, maybe they'll say, 'Oh, this could be me.'

"We like to say it's about making a job, not getting a job."

At a Wednesday practice, each of the 16 girls in the room -- all T-shirt-wearing vice presidents of manufacturing, marketing, communications or sales -- had a crack at the microphone.

A team called "Because We Care" described its line of greeting cards.

"Why cards? Cards are one of the earliest forms of communication, as you may know, and cards are fun to receive," Caroline Eastburn of Palo Alto said.

"We have a broad target market because, from young to old, everybody loves to receive cards."

The vice presidents of Pentimento pitched their product -- clear Pentel pens with origami paper inside to give them an artful look.

"And tonight only, we're offering a special pen with beads inside instead of origami," Vice President Ashley Helfinstein said.

Helfinstein went on to explain Pentimento's business model: "For each pen, we have 86 cents of cost. Included in that is origami paper for each pen, the cost of the actual pen and our labor cost, which is low.

"We're selling them for $2 each. For profit, we'll get $1.14 per pen."

Scribbled, a group selling necklaces made of Scrabble pieces, described some graphics challenges its team had overcome, as well as its business model and plan to donate 20 percent of profits to the nonprofit World Vision.

"Our necklaces are very attractive and fit every personality," Sarah Strober, vice president for communications, said. "We guarantee that no two are the same."

Sunday's panel of venture capitalists will include school parents as well as outside volunteers. Each startup team also gets ongoing support from volunteer coaches as businesses take shape from brainstorming to ideas, business plans, manufacturing and website creation.

Businesses each seek a $100 investment, and pledge that backers will recoup their loans plus a percentage of profits, with another 20 percent of profits going to charity.

"Some of the girls make good money, some make incredible money, and some of the kids just get it," Head of School Deb Hof said.

"Boys tend to tinker from day one. It's important for girls to understand they can do anything they want if they're not afraid to make mistakes," Hof said.

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Like this comment
Posted by pa mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2011 at 6:17 pm

I think this is great. But Ms. Hof, you are living in the 70s -- as I was before I had a boy, and a hippie-professor-relative told me that boys are the ones getting left behind now in our education and outreach, especially at elementary and middle school level.

This was before The Trouble With Boys came out, but if you haven't read it, it's a good place to start. Susan Charles, former principal of Ohlone, is quoted. Very eye opening stuff, but makes a lot of sense.

I'm not suggesting this kind of thing isn't good for girls, I think it's great and should continue. Just don't please wave your hand and assume that boys will be fine based on ideas from decades ago. Are there any similar opportunities for middle school boys?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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