Humboldt County Office of Education: Sixth Annual INNOVATE! Business Challenge Awards Youth Start-ups

Sixth Annual INNOVATE! Business Challenge Awards Youth Start-ups

Sixth Annual INNOVATE! Business Challenge Awards Youth Start-ups

Five Humboldt County High School students competed in the INNOVATE! Business Challenge Finale with $8,500 in prize money and $1,500 in media services awarded to support the development of their businesses. The INNOVATE! Finale took place on Tuesday, May 22, at the Humboldt County Office of Education’s Sequoia Conference Center in Eureka, where over 120 people attended to hear about the students’ concepts and encourage their efforts.

The INNOVATE! Business Challenge is a high school competition designed to promote entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation. In Phase One, Humboldt County students were challenged to create and submit business start-up ideas as 60-90 second video elevator pitches. Judges reviewed and scored all the videos to select 40 top ideas to move into Phase Two.

The 40 Semifinalists were then challenged to develop viable business models, identify their target customers, and calculate how to make their ideas profitable by answering 13 key business plan questions. Phase Two judges had the difficult job of selecting only five final concepts to present in a “Shark Tank” style event as they competed for cash awards. Due to the strength of the concepts submitted, judges in a Design Review process interviewed five additional students, and awarded $1,000 in additional cash.

An important aspect of the competition is preparing the students for the real world of business. This year, local experts volunteered at three workshops designed to refine their ideas into a viable venture. Coaches provided advice on product development, branding, their value proposition, preparing balance sheets, determining margins and pricing strategies as well as short and long-term planning. The advice introduced business practices that the students could adapt to their business models.

It was an impressive evening of high-caliber presentations as four of the five concepts were currently micro-businesses. The evening began with a Meet and Greet Mixer for the Finalists to learn how to promote and network their ideas with the guests.

Each Finalist had a 12-minute window to pitch his/her idea and answer questions from a panel of five judges. The judges had the difficult task of deciding which Finalists had the most dynamic concept and how best to support their start-up needs.

In the end, Isaiah DuFresne, a senior at Arcata High School, took the top honor, winning $2,500 in cash and a $750 media package for his business, Scorched Gears.

Kirk Hakenen, a senior at Arcata High School was the first runner up, winning $2,000 in cash and a $750 media package for his business, North Coast Boxing. Sophia Mayo, a senior from Zoe Barnum High, won $1,600 for her business, Journey’s Reptiles. Gracie Giraud, a sophomore at McKinleyville High took home $1,400 for her business, Tiny House Cakes. Dellard McKenzie, a junior from Fortuna High won $1,000 for his business, ‘Aah.

Judges included Greg Bowen, Business Solutions Manager at Umpqua Bank; Victoria Bennington, Market Manager for Bicoastal Media; Mary Keene, Founder of Cypress Grove Chevre; Steve O’Meara, Owner of Kokatat; and Tom Tellez, Owner of Wallace & Hinz.

Karen Brooks, Project Lead for Innovate stated, “Each year we never know what ideas will be submitted and it is always gratifying to have a wonderful network of business owners and experts come help the students transform their idea into a business venture. Entrepreneurial education is foreign to most every student so many different types of learners are able to participate, all they need is creativity, passion and perseverance.”

The evening included a keynote address by Rachel Callahan, program director for a new entrepreneurial ecosystem called, The Venture Collaborative. The Venture Collaborative is a partnership between education, business and community organizations to encourage students, future entrepreneurs and business owners to take it to the next step.

Sponsors have continued to generously support this high school program. The Headwaters Fund, Humboldt County Office of Education, Bicoastal Media, Eureka Broadcasting, Umpqua Bank, Sun Valley and US Bank provided programmatic support or helped fund the Finale. The Rising Stars Foundation provided the cash awards.

“Our student INNOVATE participants are proof of the intense capability of all students and that we must push the boundaries and create student-learning experiences that provide this level of relevancy and engagement for all students in Humboldt County,” stated Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Chris Hartley. “Our community partners understand that our students deserve a platform to take risks, think creatively, be empowered, and have an equitable opportunity to develop to their full potential.”

Further illustrating the range of entrepreneurial education, the evening spotlighted, WoofAbility, a transitional life skills program where students at several campuses make and sell dog biscuits, available in several local grocery stores. WoofAbility leverages project-based learning with a learn-to-earn component where students can participate in a micro-business.

The Design Review judges counseled five additional concepts that they felt were compelling but in need of further development. Those five concepts were recognized and awarded at the finale and included Roman Humphrey from Eureka High for his business Humphrey Forge; Cory Soll, Free Spirit Foundation; Cayden Love and Joseph Friel, Realm of Games; Ethan Thompson, Never World Heroes Comics; and Zachary Caya, Forge of Vecna.

The Innovate Business Challenge is an entrepreneurial model that infuses creativity, design and innovation.  The competition is part of the Decade of Difference, and designed to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs. For more information, please contact Karen Brooks at (707) 445-7563 or, or visit the website at