July 3, 2007 | By: Carol Lea Spence

If entrepreneurship is to take root in rural Kentucky, community leaders in northeastern Kentucky believe that its success depends on training the young. That was the idea behind the first Kentucky Youth Challenge, coordinated through the Kentucky Entrepreneurial Coaches Institute of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

The idea grew from a similar program KECI Fellows studied during a trip to Scotland last September. According to John Hodge, one of the team of Fellows who designed and supervised the Kentucky version of the youth challenge, the idea was to open up doors for Kentucky youth and teach them how to promote and grow their ideas, gaining insight into what it means to run your own business.

“This is a thing we need to do for our kids in Kentucky where they can step out of the box and don’t have to worry about sitting in nice neat rows all the time,” he said. “And we’ve had some success with it. I’ve got four farm boys from Pendleton County who have gone way beyond their own expectations.”

Hodge was referring to the RATS team, which consisted of Matt Thompson, Kenny Walsh, Adam Watts and Justin Whitehead. Their team was one of two who entered the premiere competition. The seed of their entrepreneurial venture? A quick hitch for hauling implements.

“You could hook any implement you wanted up to this thing,” Hodge said. “It’s a pretty versatile concept.”

Emily Pribble, Brook Razor, Brad Westhoff and Jan Wilson made up the JEBB team from Harrison County High School and developed the Tech Dress, a handheld wardrobe “manager.” Hodge said that, despite the low number of applications during this first year of the competition, the excitement of the teams could not have been any greater.

“The chemistry of this thing was remarkable,” said Hodge, principal of Harrison Area Technology Center. “These kids came together, and it could have been a thousand competitors or two competitors, it really didn’t matter. They knew that they were there to produce a quality product.”

The competition began in January. During the first stage, “The Seed Idea,” teams were assembled and an adult mentor brought on board. Teams then came up with an innovative idea that either involved developing a new technology, product or service or that used existing technologies, products or services in a new way. 

In March, the two teams were invited to participate in Stage 2, “The First Pitch.” Groups came together for a full day at UK’s Student Center, during which they were expected to pitch their idea in a format Hodge describes as a three-minute “elevator story.” A panel of judges made up of KECI coaches with diverse backgrounds that included a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate and an economic development professional were on hand to help the students think about such things as the target customer, their market and the distinctive competence of their product. The panel’s method was to throw questions back at the student teams to help them find the answers for themselves.

“They said, ‘This is awesome,’” Hodge said, referring to the panel of judges. “They couldn’t believe what these kids had put together in a few hours of intense work with us.”

Stage 3 came six weeks later, when the two teams once again traveled to Lexington, this time for a two-day session entitled “The Forum.” For this session, Hodge and his team members pulled together lawyers to discuss intellectual property rights, patenting and trademarks for their products. Everyone involved in the process was required to sign a nondisclosure agreement, designed to protect the creators of these two new technologies.

Aside from the legal aspects, students were given more training on how to develop their business plan and were able to present their products to people with the appropriate technical backgrounds. At this session, teams also were expected to present an expanded 20-minute presentation.

Though, in the end, the RATS were chosen to move on to the “Hot House,” or final phase of the competition, and make their presentation to a buyer with Tractor Supply in Nashville, Hodge felt both teams were winners.

“I think it’s a marvelous opportunity,” he said. “Whether their idea sells or not, it’s immeasurable what they’ve gained out of this, in terms of confidence and belief in themselves and what they can do, and what a little creative thinking can mean.”

This year’s competition was targeted toward the northeastern Kentucky region, which is the area that has hosted the first two classes of the Kentucky Entrepreneurial Coaches Institute. KECI’s objective is to encourage diversification of the economies in these counties by developing skills among community leaders to become effective coaches for entrepreneurs. These trained volunteers work to build a strong entrepreneurial support infrastructure and culture that will stimulate new business startups and small business expansion, especially among the region’s tobacco farmers.

Kentucky Youth Challenge 2008 begins with the start of a new school year. Though the focus is in the 19 counties of the northeastern Kentucky region, applications will be accepted from across the state. For more information about the next competition, contact John Hodge at jhodgejr@bellsouth.net or visit the Kentucky Youth Challenge Web site.


Ron Hustedde, 859-257-3186, Katie Ellis, 859-583-6786, John Hodge, 859-234-5286