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Battle Ground Academy News

'Big transformations': How students learn to pitch startups in BGA's EL Program
By Anika Exum, featured in the Nashville Tennesseean on April 12, 2022.

Hallie Heiter's job at Battle Ground Academy in Franklin is to build the "job creators of tomorrow."

"We know the World Economic Forum says that 60% of today's jobs won't exist in the same form in 10 years," said the director of the private K-12 school's entrepreneurial leadership concentration. "So we have to create students that are very malleable and adjustable to the environment in which they're in."

The four-year concentration for high school students has paid off for its students since it was started five years ago.

Students learn both "soft" communication skills as well as more technical ones. They take a series of tailored courses, and then spend senior year assisting local businesses and pitching their own businesses.

Healthy Competition
Last month, eight groups of seniors gathered on the second floor of BGA's new Center for Arts and Entrepreneurship, which opened last year.

The groups pitched their business ideas to a panel of local professionals to win an imaginary $500,000.

Ideas ranged from on-demand care for children and adults with special needs to a filter that limits potentially harmful effects of fluorescent light. Students James Ford and Price Crabtree pitched an idea for GPS-tracked crossbow arrows for hunters.

Ford started the pitch with a personal childhood story about a father-son bow-hunting session in which a mistake in aim cost the duo the animal and money.

"Hunters do really care about hunting, and they do it mostly for conservation, and there was just a bad feeling because I lost the deer and my arrow," Ford said.

He made judges laugh and feel a sense of shared nostalgia, putting those soft skills in motion before getting down to business. His group's idea, he said, would solve for the large amount of deer and arrows lost by hunters each year.

Throughout the remainder of the year, the high school students will pitch to several panels of local professionals who then rank each group and provide some healthy competition as groups mend and mold their pitches in hopes of eventually coming out on top in a final pitch competition.

"I see some pretty big transformations," Heiter said. "It's always fun to watch that one or two teams that in that initial presentation I'm like, 'Oh, I don't know,' and then they completely blow me out of the water."

Kirk Kelso, a local print and publishing company owner and father of BGA students, was one of three to give students feedback that day. 

"They were all excellent in different ways," he said. "I would definitely be ninth out of the top 10 at their age, so hats off to (Heiter) for getting them prepared.... They're brilliant young minds."

Alumni Projects

Mitchell Morrison, class of 2020, is taking time off from the University of Southern California to pursue a startup called CarbonLink Inc., founded with classmates from both college and high school.

The startup turns carbon credits into non-fungible tokens or NFTs.

Morrison said his project brings security, accessibility and accountability to the process.

He said the BGA program instilled in him the determination to take this route, especially after having an interest in startups and problem solving as a child.

"I thought it'd be really interesting to give it a try and see if I did have an idea and the legs to push it," he said. "And doing it in a safer environment like (BGA) is pretty easy because you're able to try and see the process, which is worth a decent amount of classes.

"I think what I took away from it was that it's possible."

Alumni and current college freshmen Mila Pérez and Berkeley Allison are on the road to making their capstone project a reality. Their nutritional dental chew startup, Denta-Gone, recently made it to the semifinals of the Fordham Foundry pitch competition at Fordham University where Perez is a student.

"I think my biggest thing was mentors and connections," she said. "It is taking real-life people who have big-people jobs who have started companies and are successful with it and are looking for help from younger students because new generations just have different mindsets."
 
Heiter connected the duo with local professionals with experience in their area of interest, like a mentor from Mars Petcare who works with Greenies, a dental chew brand for canines.
 
In half a decade, Heiter has seen the program go from what she called a "beta trial" to a full-fledged, four-year high school program with few competitors like it across the nation. During that time, she's grown alongside the program too, shifting from a focus on teaching business theory and frameworks to providing real-world experience and mentors.
 
For the program's annual symposium that's open to the public, Heiter gathers an impressive panel. This year, local business leaders include Mike Williams, director of manufacturing at Mars PetCare; Lee Jestings, CEO and founder of Enexor; and Raven Hernandez, CEO and founder of Earth Rides.
 
Interest in the entrepreneurship concentration is skyrocketing. For the upcoming academic year, over 40 students have qualified for the capstone project, a yearlong undertaking that traditionally hosts around 30 students.
 
For Heiter, who's been there form the start, the growth and future potential is exciting.
 
"It's really about the students figuring out that pinpointed passion and then they're off to the races," she said. "I do feel much more like a facilitator or moderator of the process than I am an actual teacher.
 
"And that's I think what makes the program so unique," Heiter said.