Special education support & lunchbox warmers: High school students pitch product ideas to meet needs

Dozens of entrepreneurs had a chance to unveil their ideas to potential investors during the LITE Memphis Pitch Night in the McCallum Ballroom at Rhodes College on December 6, with two top winners each taking home a $1,000 prize.

“By many accounts, it was our most successful Pitch Night event yet. We had our largest crowd to date, with standing-room-only in a room of 350 seats,” said Alexandra Thompson, outreach coordinator for LITE Memphis.

LITE Memphis, or Let’s Innovate Through Education, is a local nonprofit that stresses education and entrepreneurship as a component to community revival. It provides entrepreneurial skills for emerging junior and senior African-American and Latinx high school students in Memphis. The 16-week program holds pitch nights in the fall and spring. 

“These students work so incredibly hard throughout the semester-long curriculum and demonstrate so much talent and ability. But what makes this night really special is the affirmation it provides our young people,” said Thompson. “When they see hundreds of people coming out to see their innovations, they begin to realize their own potential. They begin to deepen the belief that they have the skills to pursue their passions and change the world. It’s truly remarkable to see.”

35 high school-aged finalists pitched 27 ideas. Votes from the general public narrowed the group to eight entrepreneurs who pitched their ideas on stage to a captive audience of funders and community members. 

A total of 35 students participated in the LITE Memphis fall 2018 pitch night. Twenty-seven finalists pitched their ideas to a crowd while the top eight students, who were selected by the public, pitched their ventures on the stage at Rhodes College. (Submitted)

Attendees voted on the pitches with attorney J.B. Smiley emceeing the event. Products and prototypes included a subscription box for vegetarian and vegan options to provide low-income families with healthy and affordable meals. A student proposed a platform providing differentiated stress reduction support for teens based on their level of anxiety.

“My idea was developed out of a need I had myself that I knew so many other students could benefit from. Special education is something that in my experience does not get enough attention or intentional focus,” said Jordan Jones, a 16-year-old homeschooled student who was the stage pitch winner and one of two winners of a $1,000 prize.

Among the key points in his pitch, R.A.I.N., (Redeveloping Academics through Individual Needs), are extra classroom assistance for students receiving services during small group activities. It also features afterschool programs, tutoring and encourages parents to become advocates for their children.

“As a LITE participant, it was important for me to be consistent, committed and uncompromising with my passion, life experience and new program experience. Over the 16-week course I was pushed out of my comfort zone and presented with opportunities for growth as a special education ambassador,” said Jones, who will maintain his relationship with LITE Memphis as an Innovation Fellow, an internship pipeline program LITE partners on with area employers. 

The December 6 Pitch Night had its largest crowd to date, with standing room only in a venue of 350 seats. Students who created physical products had prototypes to demonstrate, and some were either selling products or taking pre-orders at the event. (Submitted)

The other $1,000 prize winner is Aumilli’on Kimble, a 16-year-old junior at Bartlett High. Her winning pitch was Heat Keep, a pouch that fits into any lunch box and keeps food warm for over eight hours.

“We’ve already had an employer from one of Memphis’ most successful startups come to us and say ‘I’d like to hire Aumilli’on when she graduates. She’s so sharp, and since she’s built something from scratch, she gets the challenges I face,’” said Thompson.

Other ideas have already landed investors or customers.

“One student, Tatyana Muhammed, sold enough product to surpass her start-up costs for the last four months. Another, Taryn Eddie, sold several units of her breath-improving dog treats and has just been contacted by a pet food store in Mississippi to supply her dog treats in bulk,” said Thompson.

Tech ideas were also presented, including a custom PC company making computers locally from scratch and platforms for high school students to assess the city’s ACT prep workshops to better align individual needs with the available workshops. A podcast aimed at teens of color highlighting successful minorities working in STEM fields drew notice from the attendees.

“One-hundred percent of our students who created physical products had prototypes to demonstrate. Thirty percent of our students were either selling products or taking pre-orders at Pitch Night,” said Thompson.

For Jones, who plans on graduating high school a year early and then enrolling in nearby Emory College, where he will major in both special education and business management, the impact of the program is more than just pitching a product or idea in hopes of a cash reward.

“This experience has been enlightening, challenging, eye-opening but yet fulfilling. Being a part of this program has been important to me as a young man with a categorized learning disability because of the stigma placed on students like myself. It was important for me to finish the program even if I wasn't the winner in the end,” said Jones.

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