MUMS summer students diving into ‘Shark Tank’

MIDDLEBURY — Summer’s here, but class is still in session at Middlebury Union Middle School, where around 16 students are getting a crash course in entrepreneurship thanks to dedicated teachers, some community-minded business people and inspiration from an ABC television show that helps jump-start budding enterprises.
The “Shark Tank Start Up” summer program is led by MUMS teachers Martha Santa Maria and Jennifer Billings. Several of the participating students — all of middle school age — were invited to the four-week Shark Tank offering based on their teachers’ perception that it would be a good avenue through which to hone their math, English and/or writing skills.
“We know they have so much potential that maybe a different kind of setting would work to extract that leadership, giving them success that we know is there,” Santa Maria said on Thursday.
Santa Maria and Billings have worked hard to make the annual summer program interesting to the students. Last year, they convened a “zombie camp” at MUMS, which culminated in a theatrical performance. The students used math, English, reading and other skills in creating dialogue and set design for the final play, attended by parents.
While zombie camp was successful, organizers knew it was time to switch things up this summer. And it just so happens that Santa Maria is a big fan of the “Shark Tank” television show, which features a panel of corporate sharks — such as billionaire Mark Cuban and real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran— who listen to contestants make product pitches and determine which among them should be thrown some investment dollars.
“I’m an addict of the show,” Santa Maria said with a smile. “We decided to do this idea of ‘Shark Tank’ and really go after the economics.”
In the interest of time and resources, Santa Maria and Billings decided to limit the Shark Tank product focus to food. Students at the beginning of the program listed the foods they wanted to work with, and broke up into four teams, with each settling on a specific product to research, develop and eventually pitch to four local “celebrity shark” businesspeople. Those celebrity sharks include Laura Flint, whose local business holdings include the Middlebury UPS Store; Green Peppers Restaurant owner Mark Perrin; Rouse Tire owner John Rouse; and Sonia’s Salsa founder Sonia Rivadeneira. The sharks will hear product presentations and financing pitches from the four teams on Friday, July 17, at MUMS, in a show that will be taped by Middlebury Community Television. The sharks will decide which teams deserve to have their funding requests honored, though we are talking fictional dollars here; the students’ true reward will be recognition of their hard work and the knowledge they have banked to eventually enter the business world or land a job.
“Entrepreneurs have to be risk-takers, learn from failure, which is (a philosophy) we try to build into this school,” said Santa Maria, who is also the MUMS summer program director.
The students formed the following four “companies”:
• M.A.R.C.K. Bars, a seven-layer candy bar called “7 Layers of Heaven.”
• No-bake VT, specializing in no-bake cookies dubbed “The perfect mess.”
• Golden Doodles, specializing in Snicker Doodle cookies.
• S’gones, boasting “Orange Splash” scones.
Students have spent the past few weeks experimenting with ingredients in the MUMS kitchen, budgeting their expenses and potential revenues, and coming up with catchy slogans to use in their upcoming presentations to the sharks. They have been getting feedback from family, friends and school personnel in terms of the taste, consistency and appearance of their products.
Thursday saw the teams get some advice from Addison County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Robin Scheu.
“It was great to see the creativity of these young entrepreneurs,” Scheu said. “Not only did they offer tasty products, but they also had some interesting ideas for marketing and promoting their offerings to the public. You might find students presenting you with a tray of samples at a farmers market, for example.
“I think it’s wonderful that MUMS has created this program for its students,” she added. “One can become an entrepreneur at any age. ACEDC looks forward to working with more students in the future and we’ll be here help if they actually start their own business.”
Santa Maria gave major kudos to the local community for helping make the Shark Tank program possible. Organizers raised more than $500 to go along with a $200 grant to pay for food supplies and a special shark tank backdrop for the July 17 show, to be emceed by MUHS teacher Tony Bates, who is also a standup comedian.
Fortunately, Santa Maria had little trouble recruiting her sharks.
“Every person I called said, ‘I would love to do this, let me check my schedule,’” Santa Maria said. She noted Perrin even postponed his vacation in order to participate.
The sharks will receive the students’ business plans by July 15 and come ready to judge on July 17. Jon Isham, faculty director for Middlebury College’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship, will also provide some stewardship to the young entrepreneurs.
Students are now determining their team responsibilities for the big presentation. Some will be in charge of data, some for marketing and at least one to take charge of the presentation. One team will even deliver a jingle about their product.
“It’s about setting yourself apart,” Santa Maria said. “You are not competing against a team; you are really competing with yourselves.”
Santa Maria stressed that teams will not make unrealistic financial pitches to the sharks. For example, they will present figures on what it would cost to allow them to rent a commercial kitchen or to purchase a seasonal booth at a farmers’ market.
“The kids’ response has been so positive,” she said. “For some of these kids, it’s their first time that they have felt they are a leader, or successful.”
Sara Hébert, 13, is a member of the S’gones team. She noted the team started out producing muffins, but found they had a texture better suited for scones.
“We didn’t change the recipe, we changed the shape,” Hébert said of the resulting Orange Splash scones.
The Shark Tank program has allowed Hébert to practice cooking, math and English and to learn some of the basics of running a business.
“It’s getting you ready for the real world and how to be an entrepreneur,” she said.
Colby Pierro, 12, is a member of the M.A.R.C.K. Bars squad. He noted the team has learned a lot through trial and error and has adjusted accordingly. For example, Pierro and his teammates recently reduced the number of layers on their candy bar to six, from the original seven. The casualty? Walnuts, which the group found to be an expensive ingredient that might also steer away potential customers who are allergic to nuts.
Pierro is enjoying his swim in the Shark Tank and would someday like to dip his toes into much deeper waters.
“I want to open and operate a Jurassic World,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
MIDDLEBURY UNION MIDDLE School teacher Jennifer Billings talks with young entrepreneurs Andy Whitney, front, Kyle Mitchell, left, and Marshall Sanchez about gaining a larger profit last Thursday during a summer program at the school on entrepreneurship.
Independent photo/Victoria Provost

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