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UC Irvine hosts finalist pitch summit for high school students

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Aspiring high school entrepreneurs presented self-designed business pitches during the final round of the Sunrise Venture Pitch Competition at UCI on May 25. Out of 14 finalists, high school freshman Zaarya Vaid won the competition for her online toy-trading platform pitch of “Shwapz,” receiving the grand prize of $800 and mentorship from professional entrepreneurs. 

Northwood High School junior Ellen Wang, founder of Sunrise Venture, kick-started the organization in September 2023 to universalize entrepreneurial education. Wang assembled a panel of four judges for the competition, including patent attorney Justin Sanders, Wiz-a-Witz educational game founder Cynthia Kirkeby, USC Gould professor of business law Shaun Sanders and Executive Director of the UCI ANTrepreneur Center David Ochi.

“Our mission as a nonprofit is to make entrepreneurial education accessible to everyone for free,” Wang said to the event’s crowd. “Seeing all of you sitting here, we are confident that this mission has been achieved.” 

Ochi touched on the importance of the overall competition experience, mentioning that he started his first company at 13 and “would have had a different trajectory” if given an opportunity like Sunrise Venture. 

“If I had the chance to be part of a club that was engaging with the high school population, I would have been all over that,” Ochi said. “[Entrepreneurship] holds skills and mindsets that carry the economy in this society.” 

The three-hour-long competition consisted of individuals and teams of high school students presenting their business ideas, concepts and innovations to a panel of judges. 

Judges scored participants based on a rubric with category rankings from one to five based on solution practicality, business model viability and pitch quality overall. The 14 finalists were recruited from a preliminary round of virtual YouTube submissions, where students submitted 90-second pitch videos in April. Before the first round’s submission deadline, students received guidance for their submissions through online curriculum sessions and a mentorship program organized by the board.

Photo provided by Suran Yu

Vaid spoke of her experience presenting her winning pitch: a company that lets kids of all ages trade their toys on an online platform coined “Shwapz.” 

“[The summit] gave me a lot of confidence, knowing that I made it to the finalists’ round feeling that my idea was legitimate and had something behind it,” Vaid said in an interview. “The summit is very inspiring. I feel like it’s inspiring for everyone. Seeing the [entrepreneurial] community grow is really inspiring to me as well.” 

Judges provided competitors with constructive feedback on their pitches. Each of the four judges gave commentary on aspects such as feasibility and viability after competitors presented.

“The Sunrise Venture Pitch Summit was a great opportunity to put my idea out there and get feedback from actual professionals,” Vaid said.

Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan concluded the event by delivering a speech to participants about the importance of accessible entrepreneurial competitions for youth. 

Photo provided by Suran Yu

“I’ve been to so many pitch competitions, whether it’s college or adult level,” Khan said. “For a high school student to be able to come up and get that same practice on how to present an idea is such a great opportunity. It is so critical that we help our youth understand that they’re a vital part of our society.” 

Ethan Huizar is a City News Intern for the spring 2024 quarter. He can be reached at ejhuizar@uci.edu.

Edited by Karen Wang