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In this ‘Shark Tank’ for minority youth, teens vie for $10,000 in seed money

In this ‘Shark Tank’ for minority youth, teens vie for $10,000 in seed money

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LOS ANGELES (Circa) — Lillianna Najera only graduated from high school a month ago, and she already has big plans for this summer. Her big goal: win $10,000 for her startup, 2-10 Done, an eggplant-based facial cleansing tablet.

Najera was one of the finalists selected to compete in Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship's (NFTE) Startup Summer competition in Los Angeles.

"When Bracy, [the instructor], was, like, calling the names, and I was the first one to be called, I was, like, 'Wait, really?'"

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Two students present their idea for an eggplant-based facial cleansing tablet.

Startup Summer is a six-week intensive that takes place in 10 U.S. cities. In Los Angeles, 16 low-income minority students from L.A. schools were selected to participate in the program. They must develop a business idea and compete for the chance to present in front of five panelists for a chance to win some, or all, of the $10,000 available in seed money.

"We want them to be the owners of their future and not rely on others," said Kim Small, the program director for NFTE Los Angeles. The national nonprofit's mission is to "activate the entrepreneurial mindset and build startup skills in youth from under-resourced communities to ensure their success and to create a more vibrant society." According to their website, of all NFTE alumni, about 80 percent go on to college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 62 percent and 63 percent of Hispanic and black students, respectively, enroll in college directly out of high school.

"It's always a good opportunity to pitch and practice and stuff because you never know when and were you're going to do it," said Kelsey Johnson, a high school senior who will be heading to Santa Monica College this fall. She's started developing her business idea, Kinky Kaps, before NFTE's Startup Summer. Kinky Kaps are long, durable shower caps for black women with long, heavy hair.

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Student Kelsey Johnson and lead program associate Bracy Fuentes discuss prototype designs for Johnson's shower turbans.

Other ideas include a book series on bullying with a superhero as the protagonist, a device that uses running water in your house to generate power and a pen that checks vitals for people with diabetes.

The day of the competition, parents, family and friends gathered in Microsoft's Los Angeles offices to see the finalists present.

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"I’m a little nervous just because there’s a lot of changes that we’ll be making right before the investment panel," said Rellie Padilla, the mastermind behind Current Core, an adapter that uses water pressure to generate power.

Each student was given three minutes to pitch the panelists. Each contestant recited their carefully written script meticulously timed to presentation slides that projected at the front of the room. The presentations ranged from funny to personal. One student. Christina Williams, shared the story of how being homeless inspired her to start a book series. But if you weren't listening closely, you would've missed the fact that the high school senior is already a published author.

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Student Ruth Morales presents her and her partner's idea for a pen that captures vitals for people with diabetes.

Following the presentations, the panel—which featured people like Brandon Levin, the president of Justice Design Group, and Karla Torres of Microsoft— asked questions of the presenters.

"How often would they be buying one of your shower turbans?"

"Why aren't they part of your competitive analysis?"

"What does your product look like? I still don't get it."

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The panel featured seasones professionals from USC, Justice Design Group, Microsoft, ARES and Lockton.

Then, the panelists went to a separate room where they deliberated. Some contestants received $300 of the $10,000 cash prize. However, there was one undisputed winner of the night.

"For a total of $7,000, please give it up for Scribbles," announced Bracy Fuentes, the lead program associate. The crowd erupted in cheers and standing ovations. Christina Williams had won $5,000 of the $10,000 prize, and her book series inspired Patrick Henry of the Univeristy of Southern California's school of business to put down $2,000 of his own money.

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Christina Williams (left) looks incredulously at Patrick Henry of USC who personally donated $2,000 to her book series.

One particularly excited person was Williams' mom who was standing in the audience, phone in hand, when the winner was announced.

"I'm glad that she's helping other people from the experience that we have been through," said Desiree Williams. "[That] is what we're here to do, help other people. She's giving a part of her life to give back."

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The finalists stand with their checks, which were funded by the Citi Foundation.

"I'm just so excited," said Christina Williams, who took advantage of the large crowd to sell hard copies of the book. "I'm going to be able to get this book available electronically, get it into the Scholastic Book Fair. I'm just so excited."

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