'The Next Big Thing': St. Louis Students Are Innovation Economy Winners | St. Louis Public Radio

'The Next Big Thing': St. Louis Students Are Innovation Economy Winners

May 10, 2019

Nayla Nava and Maya McGregory took to the stage at the St. Louis Science Center on Tuesday to pitch their business idea for Afrospanic Atmosphere. It’s a plan they’ve been working on since the beginning of the year.

“We’re an apparel and accessory line that encourages black and Hispanic communities to pursue STEAM careers,” McGregory said. “We want to inspire black and Hispanic people to just go after their dreams and pursue their goals.”

STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, the arts and math.

Nava and McGregory aren’t just hoping to see success in St. Louis; they have dreams to take their ideas nationwide and even worldwide.

Both high school students competed in the St. Louis Metro Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge against 25 other students from across the region. They not only won the competition but they’re now representing St. Louis in a national competition where they could earn $25,000 to fund their startup.

The competition is a part of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), a nonprofit that collaborates with entrepreneurship teachers to encourage students to engage in the innovation economy. The program exists in seven school districts across the metro area.

“We are a comprehensive educational program for entrepreneurship happening inside the classroom year-round,” said Chyna Bowen, the NFTE regional director. “These students are learning about entrepreneurship during the school day. They are learning business and corporate and what entrepreneurship looks like and venture capital.”

Young Innovators

One of the districts that NFTE works with is the Ferguson-Florissant School District, where students from McCluer South-Berkeley participated in the NFTE program and competition.

“We are personal trainers that work with high school athletes,” said LaTavia Davis, a junior at McCluer South-Berkeley and the co-founder of T&J Athletics. “Our main focus is getting high school athletes on a college-bound level.”

Davis worked with her classmate, Jaylen Gardner, to create the business pitch, conduct the market research and establish a brand strategy to promote their business.

Bradley Johnson (middle) speaks with students in his entrepreneurship course at McCluer South Berkeley who participated in the St. Louis Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge.
Credit Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio

McCluer South-Berkeley teacher Bradley Johnson says the NFTE program puts the focus on community needs.

“We look at other communities in the area,” Johnson said. “What does Kirkwood have that Ferguson, Florissant or Berkeley do not have and really getting intentional about identifying problems, identifying opportunities and is there enough market there to capitalize and own a business.”

Motivating Young Entrepreneurs

The challenge in getting more students to participate in the innovation economy is not unique to St. Louis; it’s nationwide. A 2017 Gallup poll showed that only 27% of high schoolers planned to start their own business. That decreased from 35% in previous years.

“Our kids need [the program], ” said Obinno Coley, the business education teacher at Normandy High School. “They might have difficulties finding a job, and I tell kids all the time, 'Sometimes you don’t have to find a job; you are the job.'”

Chyna Bowen (left) assists students at McCluer South-Berkeley who participated in the St. Louis Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge.
Credit Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio

Bowen said the program is tailored for low- to moderate-income areas. She hopes that those who have participated in the program and didn’t make it to the national competition will expand on their ideas and bring them into the real world.

St. Louis winners Nava and McGregory envision their apparel not just as a fashion statement but also as a movement that can fund scholarships and programs and create a larger message.

“We don’t want colorism to be a thing,” Nava said. “We just want to see black scientists everywhere, more black artists, Hispanic mathematicians; I want to see that.”

McGregory and Nava will compete in the NFTE National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge in October to see if their pitch will become the next big thing.

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis.

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