Why We “Pay It Forward” in Our Business

UCLA Anderson
Home of Project Echo

I recently had a wonderful experience I’d like to share with you. It had nothing to do with “closing another deal” or marketing to new business clients.

It had to do with the future. Our future.

When we deal with the daily challenges of today’s competitive environment, it’s easy to become so focused on the next “crisis of the moment” that we overlook our greater responsibility to the business community at large.

Because every business needs a constant influx of new ideas, new energy, and new talent, I believe it’s in our best interest to nurture those who will inevitably follow in our footsteps, either as partners, competitors, or revolutionary innovators.

With that in mind, I accepted another invitation to serve as a Judge in Project ECHO’s 11th Annual High School Entrepreneur’s Business Plan Competition, held at UCLA’s Harold Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. It was a remarkable and invigorating experience for all who were there.

ucla anderson school of management
Leon J. Owens on Project Echo Judging Panel

The objectives of Project ECHO are straightforward: to provide high school students with a dynamic learning opportunity while interacting with experienced business professionals. It’s a chance for high school students to be exposed to real-world business challenges in an environment where they’re treated as adults and taken seriously. The competition features individual teams as they develop marketable business concepts, assess their need for resources, and then pitch their business plan to a wide range of industry professionals. In many ways, the event was “Shark Tank” for young entrepreneurs.

What first impressed me about this year’s participants was their complete “grace under fire”. The UCLA Anderson School of Management is an august setting that might understandably intimidate the average high school teenager. Not this group. These students seemed completely unfazed by the setting or by the panel of judges who are each experienced and prominent in their respective fields.

The student teams stood before us fully prepared and filled with confidence for their business plan and group presentation. We judges listened, responded, and gave our comments as though we were dealing with adult professionals, and responded just thoughtfully and inquisitively as we would to anyone who had come before us in search of serious capital investment.

The student presentations were intelligent and articulate, covering the essentials of demographics, cost of funds, financing alternatives, personal guarantees, cost of living indexes, cost of goods, profit margins, raw materials versus finished product cost, gross and net profit, and marketing and sales projections. These kids were not the scions of industrialists or CEOs, but came from widely diverse social and economic backgrounds. The business concepts they were dealing with have not been part of their regular dinner conversations at home.

Although it was a competitive event, each of these students validated themselves with their fearless approach and remarkable confidence before the judges. This was more than mere “play acting”. It was truly a demonstration of character, intelligence, and a determination to close a deal. When one of the participants—who had not been on the “winning” team—approached me following the awards ceremony to ask, “What did you think, Mr. Owens?” I knew I was talking to someone who understood the value of a strong follow-up and is already on the road to success

Was I impressed? You bet I was.

Everyone involved with Project ECHO, including CEO Chip Goodman, Board Chair Jeff Kravitz, and Executive Director Diane Quast deserves the appreciation of the entire business community for showing us all the way to “pay it forward.”

(You can learn Project ECHO program details at http://projectecho.org/our-programs/)

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