MIT works with young entrepreneurs to change the face of tech in Memphis

Why wait for business school? MIT trains Memphis high school students in launching their own businesses before they even get to college.

Divya Pinnaka, a Germantown High School rising senior, wants Memphians to know that young people can bring a special edge to the startup community.

“I want to inspire young people and show the world you don’t have to be a certain age or gender to fulfill a dream or goal. You can make a difference now. Don’t wait,” Pinnaka said.

Pinnaka is the president of the Memphis chapter of the MIT Launch Club program as well as the U.S. central director for MIT Launch North America. The international entrepreneurial program for high school students is based out of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and the Sloan School of Management.

The program gives high school students the tools and mentorship they need to launch a business and not just a business model or theory for after college. So far, high school students from all over the world who are involved in MIT Launch have founded over 900 companies.

A program of this caliber is unique in Memphis. While the city is seeing more growth post-Recession with groups like Emerge Memphis and EPIcenter Memphis incubating tech startups and businesses, there is not much in the way of supporting entrepreneurial teens. Yet, there is much potential.


Marvin Vilma, MIT Launch program coordinator, agrees.


“I think our presence in Memphis offers a unique opportunity to reach a group of students that may not have a lot of access to an entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he said. “I am excited about our growth here under the leadership of students like Divya who really want to change the world.”

The MIT Launch pitch events brings student entrepreneurs to the Cambridge campus.
The MIT Launch school program is based on the program’s four-week summer program that brings together high school students from all over the world to the MIT campus to become entrepreneurs. While there, students can access some of the top MIT leaders and instructors as well as an expansive network of executive support.

MIT Launch school programs use the summer program materials but expand the program to run from September to March during the school year. The club includes a school champion like Pinnaka who organizes the club and splits members into teams of three to five students.

“I thought the MIT Launch program was interesting because it claimed to help teens create real businesses, not theoretical or mock companies, real functioning companies,” Pinnaka said.

Student champions like Pinnaka teach her club lesson plans and course materials provided by MIT that are intended to take students through the startup process from conception to reality. MIT Launch participants start with identifying a problem they want to build a solution for and researching and interviewing their potential market, Pinnaka said.

Once the students hit the development stage of the curriculum, they create their own minimum viable product/prototype and from there, the market-ready product. MIT Launch also gives members access to a large network of top-level executives, MIT instructors and advisors that mentor them, usually virtually, throughout the year.

After sending off their final video of their business pitch to MIT, some teams are then selected to pitch their business on the MIT campus to a panel of judges that included ivy-league business professors and top corporate executives. 

A screenshot of Divya Pinnaka's website for Milestone.

Pinnaka and her MIT Launch team were recently given the opportunity to attend the MIT Launch pitch event where 12 international finalists pitched on the Cambridge campus to panel of judges that included top-level executives and business leaders. Her business, Milestone, made the cut out of 500 students worldwide.

After returning to Memphis, Pinnaka's team has been embroiled in the beginning stages of developing their MIT Launch-incubated business called Milestone, an education tech company that is on a mission to help high school students meaningfully and successfully manage their college and career transitions.

"Our business Milestone aims to provide a cohesive, simple and accessible way for high school students to achieve their long-term college and career goals,” Pinnaka said. A website designed by her team will offer higher education support, career advice from experienced professionals and assistance to help young adults align their skills to a promising future.

Pinnaka is now recruiting 30 of Memphis’ best and brightest across the city’s public, private and charter to apply to the Memphis MIT Launch school program. Fortunately, she is also accepting applications for student officers as well so that she will have some help running the program this year.

“Young entrepreneurs are curious and want to take on the world, which is a great gift. They look past constraints and see opportunities everywhere."

High school applicants can be from any school and any background. This upcoming year, there will be another added incentive to the MIT Launch pitch event win. The winners are eligible to win up to $5,000 and runner-ups are eligible to receive up to $1,000 to launch their businesses.

Overall, not only does the MIT Launch program help teens start businesses, it also breeds creative engagement between a younger generation and an older generation of entrepreneurs. This partnership helps spread ideas while students receive feedback from top-level executives and established entrepreneurs get the chance to see fresh, youthful takes on modern business.

“The collaboration between young and older entrepreneurs is interesting. It brings a lot of new conversations and ideas to the table that can change the world,” Pinnaka said.

Vilma says young entrepreneurs may have certain advantages compared to older and more experienced entrepreneurs.

“Young entrepreneurs are curious and want to take on the world, which is a great gift. They look past constraints and see opportunities everywhere. Yet, they are also in learning mode since they are still in school. They are eager to soak in information, but they also push back and ask questions,” Vilma said.

As far as her personal goals for the Launch school program mission and engagement with youth entrepreneurship, Pinnaka wants to give young people an outlet to share their voices.

“I took on the responsibility of school champion for Memphis because I have way too many goals to do them all,” Pinnaka said. “But, by educating other young people, maybe they can do some of the things I wish I could do and bring their different perspectives to the table. Educating people that they can do anything and make so much difference in the world is what makes me satisfied.”

Read more articles by Rachel Warren.

Rachel Warren is a freelance writer whose writing has appeared in RSVP Magazine and Focus Magazine in Memphis. She is a sales associate at the Peddler Bike Shop. Rachel likes riding bikes, playing roller derby, watching scary movies and writing about Memphis. 
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