By DEREK BEIGH
MT. VERNON —
For Mt. Vernon Township High School junior Jacob Stern, studying business just makes sense.
“You can’t do anything and make more money than a top business,” he said. “My family owned a business when I was younger, so it’s been embedded in my mind. I’ve always wanted to go into business and learn everything I can.”
That’s why Stern was excited to be one of about 1,000 gifted students from across the globe to attend Stanford University’s “High School Summer College” program this June and July. Stern and his classmates spent three weeks in Palo Alto learning about subjects ranging from creative writing to robotics from visiting and staff professors at the university.
Stern said he wasn’t sure until the last minute he would even apply to the program; he intended to ignore the paperwork and find a summer job in Jefferson County until his family convinced him to pursuer the opportunity. He added that he’s glad they did.
“I began the application and then I stopped because I figured if I wanted to get a job (the program) would interfere with it, but my family wanted me to apply, so I did in like one day,” he said. “They told me (Stanford) is one of the best colleges in the country and that it would be really good for my future. They were really supportive.”
That support helped Stern succeed in a competitive economics program taught by Stanford graduate and corporate executive Edwin Oh that taught students how to find a market for a product and effectively package it to sell.
Stern said Oh’s guidance allowed him and his team to learn what it takes to develop a commercially viable product from concept to completion.
“He brought in an idea developer who helped us brainstorm and create our product ideas. Then we had to give actual venture capitalists our elevator pitches, and that was nerve-wracking,” he said. “At the end we made 20-25 minute business plans that we gave to (Oh) and the same venture capitalists and they gave us feedback. Some of them said they would invest in the ideas they saw in the program.”
Stern’s team worked on a project they called Stanfordable, a book purchase and trade site intended as a competitor to sites like Amazon and campus book exchanges. While it wasn’t the most successful idea in the program — Stern said that was a friend’s concept of a mobile phone app that allows users to create their own apps from templates — Stern was proud of what they accomplished in bringing it to fruition.
“We were told to make a Stanford-based product, so we wanted to make a site for people to trade things on campus. But the first product you make is almost never going to succeed; you have to change it to what the people want. It ended up more as a Stanford competitor for Amazon that could expand after some success like Facebook did,” he said. “We made a beta Web site and a commercial. At the end (the investors) said we did a really good job with our business plan.”
Members of the program also learned through sightseeing in the Palo Alto area, including the offices of design consultant IDEO Labs, the San Francisco Zoo and the Stanford campus itself.
“We tried to find the marketing niche of these businesses, how they package themselves for the public,” Stern said. “We also asked Stanford students what they wanted from sites like ours. [Mr. Oh] said we should always get feedback from the consumer.”
Stern said one of his favorite parts of the program was interacting with the other students on campus, including Stanford undergraduates who acted as mentors to high schoolers in their majors. Program members from Singapore, Japan, Australia and Canada made the trip a cultural learning experience as well as an educational one.
“We were from all over the country and the world. There were a lot of personalities and views there,” he said. “Everyone from other countries was completely fluent in English and their own native language. Americans need to learn more languages.”
Stern will bring that global perspective back to the MVTHS chapter of Future Business Leaders of America, where he was Vice President last year and continues to be a member. He stressed how important the club has been in getting him interested in business, especially the efforts of coaches Rob Pipher and Julie Hayes.
“I went to a lot of meetings last year and organized a lot of activities, fun and community service. I got to go to the national conference in Nashville (Tenn.) last summer. I would have gone this year, but (the coaches) told me I should go to Stanford instead,” he said. “I think I’ve been pretty successful in FBLA, and I really like it. It’s been really interesting.”
Stern said he hasn’t made any decisions about how to continue that success in college, but he has big dreams — a master’s in business administration (MBA) from an Ivy League or equivalent school — and a head start most high schoolers can only dream of.
“Since I went to this thing, my first choice is Stanford. If I don’t get in there, I’ll apply to other upper level schools. A lot of prestigious schools don’t offer business as a bachelor’s degree program, so you study something else and then get an MBA,” he said.
“The biggest lesson I learned is to change your product to make sure consumers want it and find a niche. Don’t just make something you think is great but nobody wants. It doesn’t matter what’s right or wrong. It matters what works.”