Future entrepreneurs showcase skills at trade show | News

Audrey Rassel has never been a very talkative person. She describes herself as shy.

Wanting to step outside her comfort zone, the Western High School student joined Kokomo CEO, a local entrepreneur program for area high school students.

“I knew I needed to branch out,” she said.

Fast forward to Wednesday and Rassel was comfortably and confidently telling people about Safely Chic, her line of safety keychains. Cute, stylish and customizable, each keychain came with a whistle. Mace was available as an add on, as was a personalized letter that could be attached to the keychain.

Students in Kokomo CEO start their own business from scratch. The culmination is a trade show where they pitch and sell their products to people in the community.

Rassel said the hardest part is the initial idea, what the business will actually be.

“There’s obviously a problem in the world,” she said, explaining how she came up with Safely Chic. “It’s perfect for what girls need.”

Noah Long came up with the name of his business before the actual business. He thought of “Whatever Totes Your Boat” driving to school one day and worked backward to figure out what his business would be.

He decided on 100% canvas bags with 10% of proceeds going to the National Parks Conservation Association.

Long admitted he might have joined Kokomo CEO to get of school, but the Eastern High School student is glad he did.

“It’s given me a lot of inside info,” he said.

The year-long program teaches students what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Kids are paired with a mentor and rub shoulders with local business leaders.

“All the people you meet are people who want to help you,” said Eliza Lutgen.

Brandon Bishop, Kokomo CEO’s facilitator, said those local connections can come in handy. Sure, many of the students will go away to college, but they might need a job in the summer or choose to return to the area.

“This is a pure economic development program for Howard County,” Bishop said.

While students network with the local business community, some of the most important skills they gain are transferable to whatever they do after graduation, such as learning how to communicate confidently.

“I definitely had a lot more social anxiety a year ago than I do now,” Long said.

Watching his CEO students make eye contact, greet customers with strong handshakes and make conversation was a proud moment for Bishop.

“That’s what I’m looking for,” he said.

The trade show usually nets students money.

Lutgen’s business, Polish, was certainly profitable. Lutgen, from Western, sold most of her stock of hand-painted press-on nail sets during Wednesday’s trade show. She even took a few orders for prom nails.

This year’s CEO class featured a wide variety of products including pressure washing, automotive detailing, beaded jewelry, aromatherapy products and plants.

Luke Stage sold his services as a photographer, as owner of Visuals Aholic. Stage shoots creative portraits, which are more than just photos taken at a nice location. Stage wants to make a shoot fun, playing around with lighting, poses, outfits and colors. He does a consultation with a client beforehand.

“I want to know what type of vibe they want to get from it,” he said. “It’s a team effort to make the images great.”

The Maconaquah senior has big city dreams of working in the fashion industry or for a fashion magazine. He’s knocking out an associate’s degree at Ivy Tech while completing his high school studies.

Stage said the CEO program helped build his clientele.

The high school student said his weekends are booked. He’s even been hired to shoot weddings.

Kokomo High School’s Jay Stroman used a couple family connections to help develop and market his business.

Stroman started Eden, an all-natural shoe cleaner. Using no chemicals, the solution has just three ingredients: water, coconut oil and jojoba oil. The latter ingredient is common in hair and skin products.

Stroman hit up his uncle, a chemist, and picked his brain about what ingredients could clean leather shoes, bags and coats, along with athletic shoes, without damaging the material.

He tried the solution on his cousin’s cleats. His cousin is Taylor Moton, offensive tackle for the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League. Before and after photos were displayed at Stroman’s booth, a nice marketing tactic.

“I think CEO has been the most beneficial class I’ve taken,” he said.

CEO students also start a business as a class in an effort to raise money. This year’s group did two, taking on the saying of “do it differently.”

“It’s stuck as a mantra this year,” Bishop said.

Lewis Cass’ Jacob Stoll came to Kokomo CEO a little differently.

Having gotten caught selling chocolate at school, he was gently nudged toward doing something more productive with his entrepreneurial spirit. So, he joined the CEO program.

Stoll likened it to a “terrible Avengers movie.”

He originally had plans of making rubies for jewelry, but it takes a long time to make one. Stoll will be sure to tell you to not huff the ingredients used to make the gems or you might die.

In the end, Stoll resold rubies by making affordable jewelry with his business, The Red Accessory.

He said the most valuable parts of the program were the connections and his mentor.

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