Cass County schools participate in ninth-annual Young Entrepreneurs Day

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Students participated in a variety of activities to build their business leadership skills during the competition Tuesday. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

Students participated in a variety of activities to build their business leadership skills during the competition Tuesday. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

After Edward Lowe invented and built his kitty litter empire, he created his namesake foundation to help prepare other aspiring business leaders following in his footsteps.

As Tuesday’s annual Young Entrepreneurs Day showed, it’s never too early to get future entrepreneurs off on the right track.

Around 30 Cass County high school students from Dowagiac, Cassopolis, Edwardsburg and Marcellus attended the event, which was held at the Edward Lowe Foundation’s Tower of Tomorrow building. The students spent the morning presenting business plans for potential companies to prominent owners and leaders in the community.

“This is a competition that business students from around Cass County can compete in,” said Mikki Spagnoli, the CTE director with the Lewis Cass ISD, who worked with the Edward Lowe Foundation to put on the event. “We wanted to give the kids an opportunity to come and compete with their peers from other school districts.”

Among the business owners in attendance at the event were Dick Judd, owner of Judd Lumber in Dowagiac; Jessica Kehrer and Jose Ontiveros with Honor Credit Union; and Walt Smiles and Susan Klemm with Christianson Industries in Edwardsburg.

The owners listened to the students deliver pitches about their new business ideas, which ran the gamut from a veterinarian center to a local recording studio. They then asked questions about the specifics of each student’s business plan and gave feedback on how they could further hone their ideas into an actual operation later down the line.

In addition, the students worked on teamwork, leadership and other essential business skills with the Lowe Foundation’s Dino Signore.

“It’s not hard to start a company, but it is hard to build one,” Signore told students at the beginning of the morning. “Running a business isn’t easy. It takes a lot of hard work to be successful.”

New to this year’s event is a financial simulation, where a handful of teams are faced with the same fiscal issue that they must work to solve. Students from Dowagiac, Edwardsburg and Marcellus participated in this portion of the competition.

The ISD has been working with the foundation for nine years to sharpen the developing entrepreneurial minds of Cass County. The event caps off the lessons that the high school business students have received since the beginning of the year, when the students were given a project from their teachers to create a viable business plan for a theoretical startup.

“Students had to come up with a company name, a mission statement, a location, stakeholders, financial plans,” Spagnoli said. “It’s a pretty in-depth assignment.”

It’s not just the students who are benefiting from the advice of established local moguls, either. Karen Vaickus, an accounting and financial instructor with Dowagiac, has come up with ideas for ventures she would like to pursue in the future from her years of accompanying her students to the event, she said.

“This is my favorite day of the entire school year,” Vaickus said. “The students get leadership lessons and business advice they will take with them into their careers. They also learn to not be afraid to start their own businesses.”

The Lawton resident, who currently owns two businesses with her husband, said she would have loved to participate in a competition like this when she was in high school.

“For these kids, these next few years are their time. They have nothing really to lose should they choose to start their own business,” she said. “That’s a huge thing for them to take away from today.”

The ISD will announce the winning business proposals from each school district later this week, Spagnoli said.

The students participating in Tuesday’s event were:

Dowagiac Union

• Cassy Cannon, Early Bird

• Keyandre Williams, Open Minds Entertainment Records

• Tyler Wessendorf, Import Automotive Custom Designs

• Katie Castenada and Taylor McMeeken, financial competition team


Ross Beatty

• Denver Rigsby, Bar Stop Shop

• Brandon Glover and Jaret Sanchez, Fresh Cutz Barbershop

• Rachelle Williams and Amber Butrick, Savin’ Pets All Around

• Janey Butts, Beauty is Unique

• Lance Sheteron, Good Wood Baseball Bat Co.



• Sierra and Saige Gaunder, Next Level Up

• Michael Kanczuzewski, Christopher Higgs-Coulthard and William Meredith, Smither’s Scaping

• Nikki Dallich, Jordan Douglas, Katie Engle and Christopher Holston, financial competition team



• Brenden Ludlow, Rochelle Zachrich and Hazel Serman, After School Special

• Cole Aaron, Ben Carpenter, Daniel Pearce and Huntter Shingledecker, financial competition team