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Aria Eppinger of Pittsburgh watched her father painstakingly solder wires to the inside of a sweatshirt, attach batteries and switches and cover the whole mess with duct tape. Christmas lights on the sweatshirt lit up, but it was bulky, uncomfortable and hard to make.
The 10-year-old figured she could do better, and she did.
Four classmates from Queens, N.Y., resolved to help their school's fine arts programs that had been hurt by budget cuts. Charles Cheng, 11; Lucien Mount, 10; Alejandro Astudillo, 10; and Nataniel Natanov, 11, raised $3,000 by selling school supplies and snacks from a cart wheeled from classroom door to classroom door.
The five students' business ideas won them $5,000 apiece in a contest that drew 3,000 entries from across the country. The “Grow Your Own Business Challenge” is an effort by Warren Buffett and business groups to improve financial literacy among children. The final judging took place Monday at the Embassy Suites hotel in Omaha's Old Market.
Buffett, who was not a judge, surprised the 15 contest finalists by saying he would give each of them 10 shares of Class B stock in Berkshire Hathaway Inc., his Omaha-based investment company, worth $798 per student at Monday's closing price.
“It's inspiring to me. ... They're way ahead of where I was at that age,” said Buffett, who is the headliner in the “Secret Millionaires Club” cartoon program, which conducted the contest over the past school year. The cartoons, seen mostly over the Internet but moving to cable TV, give lessons on investing, starting a business and managing money.
Before the awards, Buffett had talked with each of the students to learn about their ideas. He went from display to display in a sort of business-oriented science fair set up in a meeting room at the hotel. The contest, sponsored by CreditReport.com, sent out 100,000 contest kits to classrooms nationwide. Organizers plan to repeat the contest in the coming school year.
Lucien explained that his team's “Deals on Wheels” sells items under $2 so students at P.S. 175, the Lynn Gross Discovery School in Queens, can afford to buy. Over the school year they sold $5,000 worth of goods and had $2,000 in expenses.
“Sixty percent profit margin,” Buffett said. “Now you've got me excited. ... I'd like to keep these kids here. We could use them at Berkshire.”
The money raised paid for two story-tellers and a performance of “Romeo and Juliet” at the boys' school. Barbara Bialek, one of their teachers, thanked Buffett for helping teach children about money. “The schools don't teach it,” she said. “They need to know this more than a lot of the stuff they learn for the tests.”
When Aria told Buffett about her plan, she showed a prototype kit with the material and instructions for sewing lights onto clothing and gave a quick demonstration of how to decorate a T-shirt. Aria loves to sew, and this system uses electricity-conducting thread and tiny batteries.
“If I would have had this to wear in high school, I would have attracted girls,” Buffett said.
Aria's math teacher, Deanna Kwiecinski, said she wasn't surprised that Aria came up with a good business idea. “I have to plan my lessons so this one's not bored,” she said. “She's always up for a challenge.”
The Lundberg brothers, Anthony, 11, and Justin, 9, from Puyallup, Wash., showed Buffett their “Super Clothes” windbreakers that can recharge a cellphone with solar panels sewn into the fabric. “I'll have to tell my friend, Bill Gates, about you,” Buffett said. “He'll probably buy you out.”
One of the finalists was Jake Madsen, 12, a sixth-grader at Russell Middle School in Millard who proposed “Shreddy Teddy,” a mobile paper-shredding business. “Just don't shred any money,” Buffett advised Jake.
Sarady Merghani of Los Angeles received the most Internet votes for her “Feel Your World” idea, a kit with Braille-covered art paper that lets people with impaired vision feel the outline of their drawings. Sarady, who worked with her local Girls Inc. chapter on the idea, said she was inspired by a friend who was an artist until he lost his vision.
The Internet vote was part of the overall judging. The judges picked the winners based on originality, presentation and feasibility.
Buffett complimented each of the students. He said his childhood business was buying six-packs of Coke for 25 cents and selling the bottles for a nickel each.
Buffett posed for dozens of photos with the students, their parents and their teachers. He said he supports the cartoon program, created by Andy Heyward of A Squared Entertainment, to help children develop financial habits that will last them into adulthood. He told students that starting a business early in life gives them a better chance of success in business as adults.
“You're developing habits that many people never acquire,” he said.
Heyward said the contest succeeded far beyond what he had hoped.
Buffett's support, Heyward said, helps attract interest from students, parents and teachers. Buffett donated considerable time to the cartoon program, recording his voice and even tweaking the script to make sure its financial ideas are sound.
After winning, the boys from Queens carried around their 4-foot-long ceremonial check, doing interviews and posing for photos. Said Lucien: “This could be a life-changing experience.”
Individual Winner: Aria Eppinger, a student at Carlow University School in Pittsburgh. Idea: Shine So Bright
Aria: "I came up with Shine So Bright when my family was making light up sweatshirts at the holidays. It took forever for my dad to finish soldering my sweatshirt. I wanted a quick and easy way to make a beautiful light up design on any piece of clothing.
"Shine So Bright will sell a kit that contains LEDs, colored conductive thread, switches and batteries through an online website. I will first find a manufacturer, have the kit packaged and then market and sell them on a website and at places like JoAnne Fabrics and Michaels. My customers will be people who want to have bright, cheery clothes that are easy and inexpensive. Shine so bright is a great family activity, and can be done in social groups such as Girl Scouts and parties."
Team Winners: Charles Cheng, 11; Lucien Mount, 10; Alejandro Astudillo, 10; Nataniel Natanov, 11, of Lynn Gross Discovery School, PS 175 in Queens, N.Y. Idea: Deals on Wheels
The team: "We found a need to raise money for our school due to budget cuts in education. Our group came up with a concept: a portable, easy to assemble, customizable school store on wheels. "Deals on Wheels" would sell school supplies as well as healthy snacks that are in high demand.
"We are targeting New York City schools in short term goals and the nation in long term goals. Our first target group is the principals and the Parent Associations. These customers would purchase the Deals on Wheels cart and merchandise to fill the portable store. Our secondary target group is the students and faculty that would buy the supplies that the principal and the Parent Association purchased from Deals on Wheels. After hearing about our business idea, our principal got excited. She allowed us to borrow a cart she had and agreed to invest in our business. She was our first investor!"
Finalist in Nebraska: Jake Madsen, 12, a sixth-grader at Russell Middle School in Millard. Idea: Shreddy Teddy
Jake: "One of my chores at home is shredding papers. It is fun! One day my dad was talking about how he had a pile of old files he needed to take to a shredder somewhere but he kept forgetting to do it. He said that trucks come to businesses to pick up papers and someone needs to come to neighborhoods for that. I'll sell curbside shredding outside people's homes. They will bring out their stuff to me and I'll shred it in front of their eyes after they plug in my extension cord. Very handy and cheap!
"To get started, I will need a full sized three-wheel bike with a small trailer to carry a portable shredder, extension cords, and a good supply of large trash bags. I'll have small signs on the bike's basket that has the face of Teddy Roosevelt and the word Teddy Shreddy on it."
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