In Philly, an incubator for students' start-up ideas

Students Newon Dennis (left) and Elona Myftaraj (third from left) use a laptop to show off an image of a dress they designed and produced to Rich Sedmak, StartupCorps cofounder, and fellow student Gisela Giolafina.
Students Newon Dennis (left) and Elona Myftaraj (third from left) use a laptop to show off an image of a dress they designed and produced to Rich Sedmak, StartupCorps cofounder, and fellow student Gisela Giolafina. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 03, 2011

On a recent afternoon, two young entrepreneurs were brainstorming names for the online dress shop they were starting, playing as usual off each other's strengths.

"Let's call it Enticing," Elona Myftaraj, 17, said to her business partner, Newon Dennis, 16. Both are juniors at Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy (SLA).

"That sounds really nice," Dennis said. "I hadn't thought of a name."

Dennis has been designing the dresses; Myftaraj has been sewing them.

"I can picture dresses, but can't draw, and Newon can draw, but can't make the dresses," Myftaraj said, explaining how the two came to collaborate in an unusual program called StartupCorps.

The students are among 15 from the charter school - and 70 in the city - attending StartupCorps' weekly entrepreneurship classes, also taught at Mastery, KIPP, Boys Latin, and the Urban Technology Project. Interested high school students must apply to the program.

"We started to develop a concept of how to help students actually start a business while they're in high school. That's where all the learning happens, that's the centerpiece," StartupCorps cofounder Christian Kunkel said. Kunkel, a 27-year-old Duke University graduate with a degree in economics, founded StartupCorps almost two years ago with Rich Sedmak, 25. Sedmak started his first business, in consumer electronics liquidation, at 15 and left Drexel University for his technology company.

At this point in the school year, the high school entrepreneurs are refining their ideas with the help of business people and venture capitalists who come to the classrooms to mentor the students.

Rashaun Williams, Anthony Torrance, and Douglass Wallace, all juniors at SLA, have held a cleanup event for their community-cleanup nonprofit organization, Phresh Philadelphia. They are already getting publicity for their idea - they were featured on local radio.

They collaborated with city groups - 100 Black Men, for instance - for the first cleanup and are working on the next event, yet to be scheduled. Their goal is to improve communications between police and youth.

And they continue to revise their business, focused on cleaning up North Philadelphia, with the help of StartupCorps mentors.

"Make sure to start small," says Alfie Hanssen, chief executive officer and cofounder of a local game start-up, Tembo Studio. "Is this helpful, or am I telling you guys things you already know?"

Williams makes a face as if to indicate: "Of course it's helpful."

Another student, Blase Biello, 16, started BLOxAPPS, a business selling Android apps he develops. Biello taught himself to code four months ago, and his first app - which played sound bites from the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - has had 7,000 downloads, Biello said. Though his first app was free, Biello plans to sell his next one, a trivia game involving song lyrics, for $1.

StartupCorps begins the course with exercises to help students identify their interests and passions.

Some have had business aspirations for years. Dennis, for instance, always wanted to be a fashion designer. But 17-year-old Trevor Hinton realized he could turn his love of animals into a business only after starting the class.

Hinton's project, "WeLovePets," is a "matchmaker service for people and pets" to help prospective owners adopt compatible pets. The service would collaborate with animal shelters.

Hinton said that it started out as a "small idea," but with StartupCorps' help, he aims to put the site online next month.

Kunkel and Sedmak said they were planning to expand their program, now in its second year, to more schools. There are already six schools on the waiting list, they said. And Kunkel says that about half of the students at KIPP applied to the program, which had only 15 slots.

StartupCorps, a nonprofit, asks participating schools to pay a portion of the costs, but most funding comes from generous individuals, typically entrepreneurs, foundations, and corporations such as Peirce College and the Internet Capital Group. It started raising money only about seven months ago. For the first 18 months, the program intentionally operated with no budget to prove its model was effective. Mentors are volunteers.

Students receive funding from StartupCorps once they reach certain milestones with their businesses. This has ranged from $100 to $1,200.

StartupCorps plans to showcase its results May 10 at Peirce College, where each student "business" will make a presentation for teachers and family.

While most students will give speeches about their projects, Myftaraj and Dennis are planning something bigger - a fashion show featuring their designs, all of which Myftaraj will construct.

"I really don't want her to overstress herself," Dennis said. But Myftaraj is adamant.

"This is something I've wanted to try for a long time, and something I want to continue," she said.

Contact staff writer Mohana Ravindranath at 215-854-2917 or


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