The crowd goes silent, one final deep breath, and the pitch begins.
From color-changing toothpaste to exotic popcorn flavors, to a jacket that charges your phone on the go, these are just some of the products presented this month by 55 students at the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship's (NFTE) National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge in Silicon Valley, California.
What was on the line? A $25,000 grand prize to help the winner start or scale their business venture.
Serving as a judge during the challenge, I had a front row seat to the action and witnessed first-hand the confidence, business know-how and pride that these students, some as young as 13, exuded for their business ideas and for their futures.
Ultimately, one student came out on top with her idea for legwarmers to help protect dancers from injury. But this competition wasn't winner takes all - it was clear that the challenge and the holistic experience with the NFTE program served as an invaluable opportunity for students to build their knowledge and develop professional and social capital that will help propel them towards success.
The enthusiasm and emotion from the students - and their families - who travelled from across the country was palpable. At one point, when the names of the semi-finalists were announced, tears of joy for those who made it through to the next round could be seen around the room.
But this experience was just the beginning.
For many students, this challenge is part of a larger journey to turn their dreams into a reality. The road to this competition has been filled with opportunities to begin acquiring crucial skills - such as problem solving, teamwork, and public speaking - that they will need as they move onto college and beyond.
One finalist, Ronnell Fuller, from Mount Vernon, New York, came to the challenge equipped with enthusiasm, his game-face and a love for his business idea: customizable lapel pins of all colors and sizes, each of which was handmade with pride. The 14-year-old beamed during his presentation when he talked about the reception he has received from neighbors, colleagues, and mentors, all of whom love his idea and were rooting for him.
Ronnell's participation in NFTE's BizCamp, supported by the Citi Foundation through its Pathways to Progress
campaign, allowed him to receive intensive entrepreneurship training this past summer, helping cultivate and build his entrepreneurial mindset and more.
"This program and experience not only taught me how to be an entrepreneur, but also how to be a leader inside and outside of school - and gave me the confidence I needed to stand in front of a crowd and sell an idea that means a lot to me," Ronnell told me.
from Los Angeles, another finalist, spoke fervently about his app, designed to help low-income families avoid financial pitfalls and enable them to plan for their future. He may not have walked away with the giant check this time, but he saw this challenge as an important step on the ladder towards success.
"I learned that hard work and perseverance is required when creating a business. And although I may have fallen short here, it is actually an opportunity to get up, move forward, and go on knowing something good will come out of my efforts," Miles said.
Like many in the audience, I was impressed by Miles and Ronnell's stories, as well as the 53 other students in the challenge, who showed determination and a willingness to seize the opportunity to help strengthen their professional and economic futures - one pitch at a time.