Making it big … the non sibi way

Access Exeter students explore sustainable entrepreneurship, product design and marketing.

Sarah Pruitt '95
August 1, 2022

Ishaan Velan and Joaquin Cavalcante took their places standing at the front of a classroom in Phelps Science Center as theme music from the hit reality TV show Shark Tank blared through the speakers of a nearby laptop.

For their final project in Entrepreneurship: Moral Money Making, a course in Exeter Summer’s Access Exeter program for seventh- and eighth-graders, Velan and Cavalcante were presenting their business idea for their teachers and peers to evaluate — and decide whether or not to invest.

“We found in research that over 50 million phone screens are shattered per year only in the United States,” said Cavalcante, an eighth grader from Rio de Janeiro. “We're spending money … on phone cases and they can't do their job well.” Enter their (hypothetical) product: a highly durable cell phone case made of a more sustainable bioplastic material derived from biological substances rather than petroleum.

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As this “Kind Shark Tank” exercise continued, the two students discussed estimated costs and revenue for their company, and described how at $55, their phone cases would still be priced lower than those made by competitors like Casetify, Nimble and Popsicase. “Unlike them, we’re very eco-friendly with our bioplastic cases,” said Velan, a seventh grader from Chicago. “And they're fully customizable to create the ultimate phone that's personalized just for you.”

The students’ pitch, like other businesses presented by their classmates, were firmly in line with the core philosophy of the Entrepreneurship course, one of three in the Access Exeter cluster titled Kind By Design: Make it Big in a Good Way. As the title indicates, Kind By Design focuses on aligning principles of business and technology with a philosophy of doing good not only for fellow humans, but for the earth as a whole. One of nine clusters offered during Exeter Summer’s 2022 session, it challenged students to take a non sibi approach to creating a useful product, marketing it ethically and building a profitable yet sustainable business around it.

Design inspired by nature

In Science in Nature: Biomimicry Beyond Benign, another course in the Kind By Design cluster, students took to the laboratory to explore how some of the most successful products draw cues from the natural world.

“We take concepts from nature and…apply them in a way that's more ecofriendly and sustainable, but still innovative,” said Jim Enright, a longtime Exeter Summer instructor who has also taught classes in marine biology and business/economics in the Upper School.

In this lab-focused course, students studied the three principles of biomimicry — sustainable, innovative and inspiring — as well as some of the ways scientists have used it to create exceptional products. For one lesson, they studied porcupine quills, the unique structure of which has inspired scientists to design more effective hypodermic needles, among other innovations.

The students also conducted hands-on experiments, including building their own lava lamps using a mixture of water, vegetable oil, guar gum, vinegar and baking soda. “We looked at porcupine quills at 8,200 times magnification under the electron microscope,” Enright added. “That’s cutting-edge technology that's not available at probably 99% or more of high schools in the country, [and] certainly not [at] middle schools.”

Ethical marketing

In Marketing: Dignified Digital Design, the third course in the cluster, students looked at well-known brands such as Apple, Disney, Starbucks, Tesla, Coca-Cola and The North Face, focusing on the way they market their products. The curriculum touched on an array of topics, from green marketing and affiliate marketing to search engine optimization (SEO), all with the intention of helping students hone their ability to distinguish between ethical and non-ethical marketing.

Instructor Davidson Joseph taught entrepreneurship in a previous session of the Kind By Design cluster, and pioneered the “Kind Shark Tank” activity for Exeter Summer. “I think the most rewarding thing is to see students at the end of the year come back and say, ‘Mr. Joseph, I'm serious about starting my own business,’” he says.

As part of their final marketing project, the students worked in groups to produce short commercials for their chosen brands. “I enjoyed learning about how commercials are made, and how you should have very short cuts — maximum five seconds — to really keep the audience engaged,” said Konrad Olczak, an eighth-grade student from Switzerland. “That was something that I probably saw [before], but I never actually realized it or analyzed it.”

Building a better business

In the Entrepreneurship class, Instructor Trevor Marrero ’12 — who attended Exeter Summer before matriculating at the Academy in ninth grade — used a variety of different media, including articles, podcasts and YouTube videos, to explore how to build a business that is sustainable as well as profitable. To give students a behind-the-scenes look at the day-to-day challenges of business in the real world, he invited several fellow alums and friends to talk to his students about their entrepreneurial ventures.

For Cian Sloan, a seventh grader from Ireland, listening to the guest speakers share their early experiences starting their businesses was particularly eye-opening. “It really showed me the amount of work you need to do to be an entrepreneur, and just all the finer things behind it and how to approach it,” he said.

Maika Liu, a seventh grader from the Philippines, agreed: “I was really inspired by their stories and how hard they had to work to get where they are today.” 

Back in the “Kind Shark Tank,” Velan and Cavalcante fielded a few pointed questions from the “Baby Sharks,” their fellow students. They then looked to the two “Sharks” in the room — Marrero and Richard Schieber, associate dean of Exeter Summer and an instructor in the Academy’s Modern Languages department — for a verdict. “I like it,” Marrero said. “I'm gonna make an offer. I want 20% of your company, but I'm only going to give you $100K.”

The two students huddled together, then came back with a counteroffer: $150,000 for a 15% equity stake. “I'll give you a hundred K for 15%,” Marrero said.

The two students wavered. Then Schieber jumped in. “I like your presentation,” he said. “I'm going to give you $100,000 for 10%.” Satisfied, the young entrepreneurs shook hands with Schieber as Marrero and their classmates applauded.