REDMOND, Wash., Aug. 4, 2004 — In many ways, Text and Tutor Connection is a typical startup. Founded to provide tutoring services and sell textbooks to high-school and college students, the company was launched by six Chicago entrepreneurs who are passionate about their vision for building the business. Last week, after months of intense research and planning, they made a successful presentation to potential investors and secured an initial round of financing. Now, they are focused on getting the company up and running, and turning their vision into reality.
Holding the check are Youth IT Challenge winners (from left) Tariq Scott, Marcus Thomas, Tonitta Fisher and Terance Garrett, with (far left) Microsoft’s Drew Costakis, Detroit, July 2004.
In other ways, however, Text and Tutor Connection is hardly typical. For starters, the management team consists solely of high-school students ranging in age from 14 to 17. And funding came in the form of a US$15,000 prize they earned by winning a national competition sponsored by Microsoft and the National Urban League, the United States’ oldest and largest community-based movement empowering African Americans to enter the economic and social mainstream.
The competition — called “Making the Business: Youth IT Challenge” — is part of a national program to encourage entrepreneurship and technical proficiency in minority high school students. For 18 weeks, students in four cities worked every Saturday with Microsoft instructors, supported by volunteers from Microsoft, local Urban League offices and the community, to develop a business idea and write a business plan.
“Before this, I thought all it took was a good idea,” says Terance Garrett, Text and Tutor Connection’s 17-year-old chief operating officer. “Now I know how much work it takes to research the market, project expenses, and make your idea good enough to succeed.”
Deepening Relationships with Leading Community Organizations
Youth IT Challenge grew out of a relationship between Microsoft and the National Urban League that stretches back to 1997 and has included support in the form of technology donations and event sponsorships. In 2001 Microsoft launched a Diversity Partnership Outreach initiative to create closer relationships with blue-chip community organizations around the country.
This year, Microsoft’s Diversity Marketing and Communications team began work to establish signature programs with leading organizations including the National Urban League, the National Council of La Raza, the Human Rights Campaign, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council and the Minority Business Development Agency. In the past, Microsoft has focused its efforts on working with these organizations at the national level. The signature programs are part of a new, centralized diversity community initiative that is designed to encourage Microsoft U.S. field employees to engage with community organizations at the both the district and local level.
“We wanted to create a way for Microsoft to engage locally with blue-chip community organizations such as the National Urban League in a deeper, more meaningful way,” says Gayle Cruise, group manager for Diversity Marketing and Communications. “We want to create programs that will enable Microsoft district offices to further the company’s citizenship goals in a more active way, moving away from transactions and closer to bringing people together in action.”
Youth IT Challenge, Microsoft’s signature program with the National Urban League, was developed following a series of meetings involving the Diversity Marketing and Communications team, the National Urban League headquarters in New York and a number of local offices around the country.
“This is a great example of the kind of partnership that the Urban League values and it is very consistent with our focus on youth development, youth technical training and youth entrepreneurship,” says Barbara Holt, education director for the Chicago Urban League. “Our goal of achieving equity and parity for African Americans in all avenues of life has to include bridging the digital divide, which is a major challenge because access to computers and the kinds of training required is still more limited for African Americans. This program helps to advance our basic mission of equality of opportunity with a focus on information technology and entrepreneurship.”
Strong Commitment from Students, Parents, Volunteers and the Community
In its inaugural year this year, the Youth IT Challenge was hosted by Urban League offices in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York. (Next year, the program will expand to six additional cities.) A rigorous curriculum was developed with help from Dr. Todd Shurn of Howard University, Trish Millinees Dziko, a former Microsoft employee who founded the Seattle-based Technology Access Foundation, and Mylene Padolina, a Microsoft senior diversity consultant. The program included 90 hours of instruction and training designed to foster teamwork and leadership skills, improve the student’s knowledge of the technologies needed to support an e-commerce business and teach then how to develop and present a business proposal.
The program has a number of goals, says Cruise.
“We want to encourage minority kids to think about entrepreneurship and how they can use technology to develop a business,” she explains. “In the end, the most rewarding thing was watching the kids grow more confident as they went through the process of becoming a team, developing an idea, figuring out how to make it work and articulating it to others.”
In each city, 15 students were chosen to participate, and they were divided into teams of 4 or 5 to develop business ideas. In late June and early July, a competition was held in each city to select a winning team to fly to Detroit to compete in the finals at the National Urban League Conference on July 23.
Sjonia Harper, a technology specialist on the Microsoft Seminar Sales Team, was the Microsoft volunteer who acted as instructor for the Chicago Youth IT program.
“These kids made a huge commitment to be part of this program,” she says. “We worked together every Saturday for six months and participated in numerous conferences calls. During the week before the national competition, we met almost every day. I came away really impressed by their level of dedication.”
According to Cruise, the deep commitment extended to the community and the parents of the students who participated.
“This program had great support in every city,” she says. “We had lawyers and advertising executives come in and work with the kids to help them understand how businesses work, and companies that invited us to visit so they could see businesses in action. The parents’ involvement was critical too, and it was great to see parents come together to form car pools and provide other kinds of support.”
Picking a Winner
In addition to Text and Tutor Connection, business ideas presented to the three-judge panel in Detroit included TeenzNYC.com, a lifestyle Web site and Internet community targeting teens in New York City. The Dallas team pitched an idea called UrbanGIC.com that aimed at selling clothing and video games, providing current news events, and offering online directory of beauty salons and barbershops for teen travelers. The Los Angeles team proposed a mobile car detailing services called FACK, Inc., (Four Friends Auto Custom Kare).
The competition finals were judged by Detroit entrepreneur Jay P. Harrison, president and CTO of Internet Operations Center Inc.; Richard Temkin, district director for the Small Business Administration, and Drew Costakis, solution sales manager for Microsoft. They awarded first prize to Chicago, with the team from Los Angeles placing second, Dallas third and New York fourth.
“We were very impressed by how prepared they were,” says Costakis. “I know that helping people realize their potential is our slogan, but by giving these students the opportunity to come up with some big ideas and stretch the boundaries of their thinking, that’s really what happened.”
The judging was extremely close, and the results came as somewhat of a surprise to Tonitta Fisher, the chief executive officer for Text and Tutor Connection.
“I really thought that it was between our team and New York, because they had an excellent idea,” she says. “So when they announced that New York was fourth, I really didn’t know what to think.”
The Hard Work Is Just Beginning
Under the rules of the competition, the winning team had three options for receiving the $15,000 prize. Choices included taking the award in the form of bonds that could be used for college, receiving the equivalent in computer equipment and software or using the $15,000 as seed money to get the business off the ground. Text and Tutor Connection’s management team voted for option three.
As a result, they have a lot of work to do. In order to receive the startup funds, the team committed to a very demanding set of requirements that includes creating a board of advisors, meeting a set of milestones established by Microsoft and the National Urban League, attending monthly planning meetings for a full year, and meeting with their instructor at least once a month.
Microsoft and the Chicago Urban League will also continue their support. In addition to the start-up funds, Microsoft will provide volunteers to advise the Text and Tutor founders. The Chicago Urban League will work with Text and Tutor Connection to co-manage the company’s budget and will provide access to computer equipment, meeting rooms and other facilities. Together, Microsoft and the Chicago Urban League will find local resources and volunteers to help Fisher and her management team launch the business.
According to Fisher, the hard work is really just beginning.
“We’ve got a lot to do,” she says. “We’re working on getting things trademarked and patented. Then we need to take care of everything from looking for office space, to utilities and office equipment.”
“I’m excited for them,” says Harper. “These kids put a lot of effort into understanding what it takes to start a business. I really believe they have an opportunity to make it happen.”