May 25, 2019  

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High School Entrepreneurs Shine at Annual State Competition

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Gulfport High School senior Myia Wilson won the Making Money Now! Award.

A total of 20 Mississippi high schools delivered their business pitches as part of the 11th Annual Southern Entrepreneurship Program (SEP) State Competition held Wednesday, May 2 at The University of Southern Mississippi’s Trent Lott Center.

Each year, the SEP engages more than 500 high school students across the state in an interactive exploration of entrepreneurial opportunities and resources. The program, launched in 2007, is an outreach of the USM College of Business’ Center for Economic and Entrepreneurship Education.

Judges for the state finale represented a wealth of expertise and backgrounds, including business resource providers, financial institutions, university professors, and serial entrepreneurs.

James Wilcox, director, USM Center for Economic and Entrepreneurship Education (CEEE) and SEP director noted that the initiative demonstrated by competing students and the overflow of excitement and support from the judges was phenomenal.

“The energy at this year's state competition was nearly tangible. Just being in the room, one could sense the gravity, the deep-rooted impact of this experience on each student, their teachers, their schools, and their communities. These students aren't just aspiring entrepreneurs,” said Wilcox. “They're already in the game, and Mississippi is all the better for supporting them in this journey.”

Students competed within two separate divisions based on the status of their business. Those who already have customers and are generating revenue compete within the Startup Division, while ideas compete in the Concept Division.

Poplarville High students Janelle Johnson and Justin Rodgers were the competition’s top winners. Their business pitch for J&J Metal Works earned not only First Place in the Startup Division but also captured two individual SEP Industry Awards — the Georgia-Pacific Leaf River Cellulose INNOVATOR Award and The First, A National Banking Association MULTIPLIER Award.

Second Place in the Startup Division went to Richland High School students Amber Cook and Lauren Hill for their business Ooh La Lips. Third Place in the Startup Division went to Greenville High School students Kala Young and Shandaesha Skinner for their business CK Kreations.

In the Concept Division, Greenville High School students Tarisha Moncrief, Drakeira Dorris, Mauriana Smith, and Khatia Wigfall earned First Place for their business idea Color Splat. Second Place in the Concept Division went to Poplarville High School students Janna Dutsch and Lindsey Storrs for their business pitch Food Dash, which also captured the USM College of Business SCHOLAR Award. Third Place in the Concept Division went to New Hope High School student Rotrick Morris for his pitch Morris Funeral Home.

Wilcox said that the program’s most envied prize each year is the Making Money Now! Award. Each year, SEP students are given a challenge to start a business with $10 or less. The award criterion evaluates the student’s Return on Investment (ROI), the idea’s sustainability, and the student’s overall creativity in product development and marketing.

Gulfport High School senior Myia Wilson claimed this year’s Making Money Now! Award with her artistic $8 startup painting custom door hangers. Myia's efforts embraced the seasonality of outdoor décor during the school year, seizing each change as an opportunity to generate additional sales.

The year-long program and competition earned rave reviews from many of the high school teachers and instructors on hand.

“This was my first SEP State Competition, and it was the single best competitive event I've ever attended,” said Poplarville High School instructor Donna Baxter. “This competition gave my students so much, including a new network, confidence, and live business experience.”

Kali Harris, New Hope High School instructor, said: “The SEP has helped me to be a better teacher in the classroom as well as have more student participation. I felt like we were in a real life episode of 'Shark Tank.' I will look forward to this every year.”

The lead sponsor for this year’s SEP State Competition was the Mississippi Department of Education. Additional sponsorship was provided by the USM College of Business; the USM Trent Lott National Center for Excellence in Economic Development and Entrepreneurship; Georgia-Pacific Leaf River Cellulose; The First, A National Banking Association; and Java Moe’s.

For more information about the Southern Entrepreneurship Program, contact Wilcox at: