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High school students from Lincoln Builders Challenge launch business

A launch event on June 27 marked the culmination of a four-week adventure for 22 Lincoln high school students who were part of the first Lincoln Future Builders class. Community and business leaders joined family members to help the students launch a t-shirt business developed through the program.

“We want Lincoln to be the perfect launch pad for young people,” said Mayor Chris Beutler. “Our community is ready, willing and able to bring the next generation into power.”

The students were selected from more than 3,000 who took the Gallup Builder Profile (BP) 10 assessment that measures entrepreneurial aptitude. The top 15% participated in an entrepreneurial boot camp and pitch competition in April, with 22 selected for the intensive, month-long summer program.

“We’re really good at developing intellects,” said Todd Johnson, Gallup’s Global Channel Leader for Entrepreneurship and Job Creation. “Now we’re really good at being a best practices center. Maybe the next Ev Williams is in this cohort.”

The students were challenged to leverage their strengths to identify the roles they were best suited for in building the company. And they weren’t afraid to put effort into it.

“They were here from 9 to 4 every day, ready to go to work,” said Samantha Kennelly, Assistant Director of the Clifton Strengths Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “They spent the first week learning about their strengths, how to work in a team and identifying their best roles.”

Beyond learning their own strengths, students learned how the strengths of others can complement their own.

“If I’m paired with someone opposite, we’re good partners,” said Cora Scott, a sophomore at Lincoln Southeast. “If someone wasn’t good at something, someone else could step in.”

Once roles were identified, week two was spent coming up with t-shirt designs. It wasn’t easy.

“They learned that the design is about the message, not the image,” Kennelly said. “What’s the story? What pain points in the Lincoln community did they want to bring awareness to?”

Four designs eventually emerged, with themes including positivity, equality, the environment and “power the future.” Attention then turned to production, financing, marketing and sales.

“They had to work with the Strengths Lab in D.C. to take out a $5,000 loan,” Kennelly said. “They worked with Ink Alley to create the shirts and then started selling.”

Popup sales at The Foundry and Jazz in June were complemented by online sales. Success came quickly.

“Within two days they sold 200,” Kennelly said. “Within four days they paid back the loan.”

The program didn’t necessarily match student expectations going in.

“I went in thinking it would be a really structured event,” said Samuel Hurt, a sophomore at Lincoln Southwest. “It was real and they gave us suggestions, but didn’t force us into what to do.”

Scott took away a lot of value.

“People think it’s just another camp and you’re wasting your summer,” she said. “This has been the most valuable thing I’ve done in a long time.”

Hurt also learned some things about himself.

“I learned that I react well under pressure,” he said. “I headed up the marketing team and we needed to get a lot done in a hurry. I didn’t panic like I expected to.”

There are many sponsors, partners, mentors and volunteers assisting to make the program successful. The project lead is Rich Claussen, Ambassador for Innovation and Entrepreneurship with Prosper Lincoln.

“The young people that we had assembled really are a reflection of the kinds of kids and young minds that will build the next better community for Lincoln and Nebraska,” he said. “Those kids are surrounded by a couple hundred people who support their pursuit of that.”

“It’s a special time, a community coming together and saying this matters to us, these kids and all the students that took part in Future Builders,” he added.


Rod Armstrong is the Vice President of Fundraising at AIM Institute and a regular contributor to Silicon Prairie News.

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