Do your students have a mind for business? A potentially awesome idea for a startup? Maybe they just want to learn how to take on marketing campaigns, go through a product design process, or bulk up their problem solving skills. While some students may be able to jump right into launching their own entrepreneurial venture, most will need a little guidance. That’s where academic competitions can help. The best competitions are designed to not only motivate students to want to learn, but they also provide the framework to help them build their skills in ways they just can't do in the traditional classroom.
Entrepreneurial competitions give K-12 students an opportunity to learn real-world business, marketing, product design, and communication skills to help them succeed as they explore the wild west of entrepreneurship. Competitions provide great opportunities for students learn the best practices in startup entrepreneurship and even provide opportunities to raise some funding for their ventures or scholarships for college.
There are many entrepreneurial competitions around the world each year. So how do you know which ones are right for your students? While the base focus is on entrepreneurship, the topics can vary from consumer products, to sustainability and innovative technology and everything in between. To help you out, we’ve compiled a list of the top entrepreneurial competitions for K-12 students. While most of these competitions are focused on the high school level, some have opportunities for younger or older students to get engaged as well.
Explore our list below to learn more about the variety of competitions that will fit your students' interests and strengths. You can also browse through our expansive online competition database, which enables you to search and follow every type of competition like art, energy, and global affairs to name a few.
This competition is for high school students to develop their own creative, well-researched solutions for a more sustainable future.
As the largest student-run entrepreneurship competition, high schoolers are required to pitch original business plans to local entrepreneurs.
Students create sustainable solutions for different sectors of the world, including Aerospace & Aviation, Cyber-Technology & Security, Energy & Environment, Health & Nutrition, and Smoke-Free World to create a better future. The competition is for middle and high school students.
Students create a solution to a unique scenario focusing on humanitarian issues such as improving access to healthy, fresh foods in disadvantaged communities. For high school students.
DECA holds a variety of competitive events, including the DECA Idea Challenge, FIDM Challenge, and Stukent Social Media Challenge for students to show their knowledge and abilities to create innovation solutions to challenges.
Students from around the world learn about the principles of entrepreneurship while growing their own ideas and putting them into action. Open to high school students.
Students are tested on their financial literacy skills in a variety of categories. Only high school students who are affiliated with the FCCLA are eligible to participate.
Students create a social responsibility plan for a business to raise environmental awareness and forge a positive relationship with the surrounding communities. For all students grade 8-12.
Students demonstrate their entrepreneurial strengths and command of the field as they present and defend their business ideas to judges. Students start at their school level, continue to compete at regionals, and then the top teams are brought to a national summit.
Individual students or groups work to create original ideas for reducing waste in their home, community, and the world. Students 4-18 may participate.
The SAGE USA and SAGE Global competitions train high school students on being sustainable entrepreneurs. Students propose sustustainable business plans and compete at their regional level to be invited to the SAGE Global event held at a different location each year.
Technovation encourages young girls to participate in developing and applying the necessary skills to solve real-world issues with technology. Female students who are ages 10-18 can participate.
Held in Sweden, this is a competition where students of any age create ideas and startups that to more sustainable society.
A business challenge for students to pitch their entrepreneurial solutions for real problems that follow the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. For students 13-24.
In 1956, William Shockley moved to Mountain View, California, where he founded Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory - one of the earliest computer technology companies. Shockley was unique in his designs in that he believed that silicon was a better material for making transistors - during the time, germanium was the common material. Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory's research led to breakthroughs in silicon transistor technology. In 1957, some of Shockley's employees left the company to form Fairchild Semiconductor. Two of these original employees of Fairchild Semiconductor, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, went on to found Intel in 1968. And the rest is as they say, history. Silicon became the base of all transistor technology, and Silicon Valley was born as the leading technology hub in the world.
Today, Silicon Valley is far more than just a place where computers and silicon chips are made. Silicon Valley has become eponymous with American innovation and entrepreneurship. It has led to just about every other major metropolitan area trying to replicate the success of the valley. In more recent decades, the US entrepreneurial ecosystem has grown across the country, peaking in 2006 with 715,734 new startups launched, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then the Great Recession of 2007-2009 put a dramatic dent in the meteoric rise of the startup ecosystems. Since then, the number of startups launched each year has been back on the rise, nearly reaching the 2006 high with 679,072 startups launched in 2015; however, there remain troubling signs for American entrepreneurship.
First, while the number of startups being launched each year has risen since the great recession, the number of jobs per startup has not. In fact, ever since the dot com bubble burst in 1999/2000, jobs per startup has been declining, bottoming out in 2010 at around 4.5 jobs per new startup launched, and showing no signs of going back up. What does this mean? There are many interpretations, but it may be one sign, that the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the United States is not going to be the economic powerhouse that many expect it to be in the coming decades.
One other troubling sign for American entrepreneurship is from the recent Gallup Hope Index. According to this poll, in 2016 we hit an all time low of only 27% of high school students (grades 9-12) having plans to start a business. This is down from recent years where the number was in the mid to low 30% range. But when you ask the younger generation (fifth to eighth grade) over half want to start a business, the response has been 50 to 55% consistently.
This difference in ambition between age groups has existed for as long as Gallup has taken the poll. Over 50% of younger (middle school age) students have responded positively to starting their own business, while by the time they reach high school, that number decreases to the lower 30% range, and now is down to the upper 20% range. What is unique in the most recent 2016 poll, is the extent of that difference. Never before has the Hope Index been less than the mid 30% of high school students wanting to start their own business. The most recent number is a full 7 points off of the previous average of 34%.
So, what’s happening here? Are students losing that desire and ambition once they get an inkling of how much work it is going to take? Or are they simply moving on to other interests? Whatever the case may be, if the American educational system doesn’t figure out a way to keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive in today’s youth, others may take over as the world’s top innovation space for the next generation of world-class entrepreneurs. And in fact that’s what many are trying to do.
Competitions Drive the Startup Ecosystem
One of the major ways that countries spark entrepreneurial interest in students and the next generation of business leaders is through competitions. Business Plan and Business Case competitions have proliferated across the US and through many universities world-wide. You can’t search for a university’s business school without hearing about their student pitch competition, or accelerator. In fact, many startups get their beginnings through these business pitch contests. Just about every major business school or university in the United States now has a student entrepreneurship competition. For example, you may have heard of the Rice Business Plan Competition, The MIT Clean Energy Competition, NYU Stern New Venture and Social Venture Competitions, Harvard Business Plan Competition, MIT $100k Entrepreneurship Competition, or the Wharton Business Plan Competition among hundreds of others.
We may expect with the head start in entrepreneurship the United States has had, that we should also have the largest student pitch competitions. And while these university competitions have hefty awards and a fair number of student competitions (The Rice Business Plan competition boasts $1.3 Million in cash and prizes to winning teams), unfortunately, this doesn't come close to the sheer number of participants in the largest competition who are now learning how to build their own startups. So who’s the biggest? Probably not who you would expect.
Launched only three years ago in 2015, the “China College Students' Internet Plus Innovation and Entrepreneurship Competition” dominates over other student entrepreneurship competitions across the globe. With more than 1.5 million students from 2,241 universities and colleges participating (according to the Chinese state news agency Xinhua), this Chinese competition is far and away the largest entrepreneurial competition by participation.
In Wait a minute—China and entrepreneurship? Since when did communism support so much entrepreneurial freedom? While the two concepts may not align in theory, the Chinese government seems to have realized that a national push for entrepreneurship is good for their economy. That has translated into massive government support for entrepreneurship along with support from its universities.
According to the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences, whatever the government and colleges have been doing is working. From 2011 to 2017, the number of students starting a business upon graduation in China has risen from 1.6 percent to 3.0 percent. In 2017 that meant about 200,000 new Chinese entrepreneurs entered the economy upon graduation.
"Peking University cultivated my entrepreneurship. And central government policy supports an environment favorable for making innovations," says Dai Wei, the founder and CEO of Ofo, a bike-sharing company that raised over $700 million in funding in July (Xinhuanet). The Chinese government has impressed upon educators the need to be better and to even put their theories and teaching into practice. Teachers are even being encouraged to turn their research into a product and start their own businesses.
How successful China’s entrepreneurial push will be remains to be seen, but if nothing else, it shows that there is a strong interest from China in encouraging the next generation of home-grown global business leaders. The launch of a national entrepreneurial pitch competition for college students demonstrates a strong, central drive to accelerate new entrepreneurial leaders. And the numbers are in China's favor. With nearly three times the number of students in colleges in China versus the United States, this may be an entrepreneurial machine in the making.
The Chinese government has only recently shifted the economy to one driven by consumer spending. So, the concept of entrepreneurship is a relatively new one for them. Does this mean that Chinese entrepreneurial growth is only beginning? We will have to wait and see how this competition expands over the years, and what that means for the Chinese startup economy. What we can take away from all of this for the United States is that perhaps the idea of a national entrepreneurship student competition and overarching economic initiative is not such a bad idea. Could a coordinated national youth entrepreneurship competition turn around the downward trend in entrepreneurial interest seen in the Gallup Hope Index? It may be time to try. Youth entrepreneurship in the United States is still strong, but there are troubling signs on the horizon and there are strong competitors coming up who want to take the reins on the global entrepreneurial ecosystem. It will be an interesting competition in and of itself to see who will maintain the global entrepreneurial leadership in the years to come.
Companies are always looking for the best and brightest to join their ranks. But only a few standout applicants get the jobs. Even fewer get hired or promoted to positions of leadership. For the up-and-coming business leaders just graduating college, it’s going to be a tough road ahead to find the position that is perfect for you.
If you’re coming out of college looking for a job in the business management or leadership sectors, or even if you’re in high school and looking to get into college or grad school, you need more than just good grades and a good resume to get recognized. Companies and colleges alike look for examples of your experience that showcase how you’ll do in competitive situations.
Do you know how to manage a team? Can you handle tough negotiations with clients? How will you respond when something doesn’t work the way you expect it to? These are all the kinds of questions businesses are going to want to know the answers to in order to give you the job. And you’re going to need to demonstrate your expertise in these areas. This is where business competitions play an increasingly important role for business schools and corporations.
College coaches can see athletes play for years before making a scholarship offer. By seeing him/her grow and perform over time, they can get a pretty good idea whether a player’s talents will translate to the college or professional level.
Well, now employers are starting to scout candidates who are testing their business acumen in much the same fashion. As a high school or college student, how can you really get noticed for the career in business or entrepreneurship you want?
ICS tracks hundreds of competitions that can help you showcase your business skills, but we figured we would highlight just a few here to help you get going. By participating in these academic competitions, you’ll gain a leg up on your competition. CEOs and hiring managers will get a better idea of who the entrepreneurs and business leaders of tomorrow will be by looking to these competitions. And you’ll be better positioned to become the next #1 hire on their list! So go ahead, get in the business arena by checking out these competitions:
DECA Competitive Events
DECA describes what it does as preparing “emerging leaders and entrepreneurs for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management in high schools and colleges around the globe. Events are preceded by a course of instruction first ensuring that the participants have had access to the information they need to excel at the competition(s) they enter.
Competitions will cover a broad range of skills related to business management and administration, entrepreneurship, marketing, finance, hospitality and tourism, and personal finance.
The Virtual Business Challenge will give participants a chance to put their knowledge and skill set to use in real world scenarios related to the industry they have selected (fashion, retail, restaurant, sports, accounting, hotel challenge, and personal finance).
Figuring out who wins—and who companies should keep an eye on—is easy. The winner in the retail, restaurant, sports, and fashion challenges will be whoever earns the most profit after one virtual year. Profit will factor into deciding the winner of the hotel challenge, but so will customer and employee satisfaction. The personal finance challenge winner will be determined by highest net worth. The accounting competition will involve recognizing issues quicker than other teams.
What better way can there be for an employer to gauge a person’s potential than to see it in action? Dealing with issues and problems in the real world is much different than in a virtual one. But if an employer is looking for a reason to hire one person over another, virtual experience and success are better than no experience (or success) at all. If you’re interested in these industries at all, it’s time to jump into a DECA competition!
Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge
The Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge gets a entrepreneurs into more specific categories. The challenge is all about devising a product or innovation, but not just any old thing people can be talked into buying.
It is geared towards coming up with something that can benefit the world. There are four categories for submissions: aerospace and aviation, cyber technology and security, energy and the environment, and health and nutrition. All of which happen to be industries with a tremendous amount of growth potential.
Over 100,000 high school students 450+ schools from around the world take part, and companies are increasingly turning to competitions like the Conrad Challenge to find their next great hires! But more importantly, of the 350 new products and innovations devised, over 20 percent are in development.
So, we are not just talking about a bunch of smart kids that came up with some interesting ideas. They came up with real, world-changing products. Joining the Conrad Challenge can help you not only land your first job, but just might help you in starting up your own entrepreneurial business!
Other ways to Jumpstart your Future.
There are many other competitions that can help business and entrepreneurially minded students in college or even in high school. Pitch Competitions abound to help students practice getting their own business plans together, but also there are business management challenges, and many others to interest students in all industries.
The Modeling the Future Challenge should be on every student’s list if they’re interested in emerging technologies that have the potential to change the future. Contests held by the American Computer Science League provide an entryway into computer science and technology companies. Students with a mind geared towards science and math have abundant opportunities in competitions. One that covers a wide breadth of STEM industries is the National Science Bowl held by the U.S. Department of Energy.
There are academic competitions that encourage students to test their abilities and knowledge in nearly every discipline. If an employer wants to know if a job candidate is motivated to test his/her limits, likes to face challenges, and is capable of adapting as needed and overcoming them, they increasingly look to academic competitions.
Don’t be left behind by just relying on your resume to get your next job, or even for your college applications. Get in the arena by participating in any of the many competitions featured at the Institute of Competition Sciences! There are hundreds of business related competitions available to students of all ages!
It’s no secret that STEM fields are a male-dominated world. Even with an increase in programs designed specifically to engage girls, they remain a small part of the overall STEM community. Girls face unique challenges in pursuing STEM projects and careers, and far too often, these systemic challenges end up turning them away from promising opportunities even though it's good for everyone to have more girls in STEM.
One strong way students have typically been engaged in STEM is by participating in academic competitions. Science fairs, Robotics Challenges, quizbowls, and more have been motivating students to pursue STEM for decades. However, with the increasing popularity of these programs, ICS had to question what kind of unique challenges girls might face in these competitions? And how do the girls that have been successful at overcoming them, do it?
But… You’re a Girl!
The short answer is... well... yes, girls do have systemic challenges to face that boys just don't. Girls are presented with unique challenges at nearly every step of a STEM competition. To understand this better, we talked to two long-time friends of ICS, budding STEM role-models, and sisters, Mikayla and Shannon Diesch.
Mikayla and Shannon grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan where they began competing and winning academic competitions across the country. They got their big start when they won the Conrad Foundation’s Spirit of Innovation Awards for the Space Nutrition category in 2010.
Their creation—the Solar Flare granola bar—was approved by NASA and even flown to the International Space Station for testing as an astronaut nutritional supplement. Both Shannon and Mikayla then went on to college but kept their dreams of creating a "Solar Flare" company alive. Currently, they are continuing to pursue launching Solar Flare’s mental energy bar into the working world.
“There are all different bars for dieters, and athletes needing just physical energy, but not much for those who need the mental energy for a busy day at the office.” Said CEO and Co-Founder, Mikayla Diesch. Their hopes for the next year are to fundraise and get their product out into the world. They are directing these initiatives towards start-ups and tech companies, who need this fuel for both physical and mental work.
With all of their hard-earned successes at such a young age, we were interested in their experience as girls (and now as young women) rising through the ranks of competitions to become young entrepreneurs working in STEM, and wanted to see what kinds of recommendations they had for others pursuing similar dreams with academic competitions.
The Challenge of being female.
We caught up with Mikayla and Shannon to ask about the unique challenges they faced as they participated in pitch competitions across the country. There remain many challenges unique to girls transitioning into STEM careers. From being young girls in academic competitions to young women in the field of engineering, the sisters faced hurdles on many fronts that their male counterparts simply didn’t have. Often from systemic challenges that many participating wouldn’t even recognize at first.
One of these challenges was highlighted during Mikayla’s Master’s Engineering project, where, along with her project partner (who happened to be male), she was required to present her work to a panel of judges and peers.
“No one asked me questions,” Mikayla said. “They were all directed towards my male partner. I did a lot of the design and actual building, but the judges pointed their bodies and faces towards him asking questions, while I stood there. I wasn’t acknowledged or questioned.”
To be heard, Mikayla had to be more assertive during the questioning, which can be difficult for girls. It can be awkward or even seem mean to declare your ideas, and especially objections as a female. Males often don’t have to validate their beliefs, while women need to explain why they aren’t just nodding their heads along in agreement. Many times these actions might seem pushy to most girls, but Mikayla says it was the only way for her to make her voice heard in a room that didn’t ask to hear it.
This challenge is systemic across many industries. It is especially prominent when girls are faced with competitive situations where they might be fighting for a raise, a new job, or funding for their work. However, like Mikayla says, don’t shy away from the challenge. Step into it and make sure you are heard.
One of these is not like the others.
With the increasing interest in getting more females into STEM, the industries are starting to see a rise of girls pursuing the “Geek” life. There are more programs and initiatives to get girls involved in science and math, but we certainly can do better. One area where Shannon and Mikayla think there can be a lot of impact is having female role models.
“We need more visible role models who are out there for young girls to see and say, ‘I want to be like her when I grow up,’" says Shannon. "There needs to be more visibility of women in STEM for girls starting at a young age. We need to show girls that STEM doesn’t have to be my whole life, but it can be another thing I am interested in and could do.”
The earlier girls can be introduced to female STEM role models the better. Early initiative programs are a good start, but they need to be implemented before middle or high school.
“Most of my friends realized that they didn’t like math or science in elementary school,” says Shannon. “Early action programs for girls to understand that math and science are cool and they can be good at it is important, even at the elementary level.”
Never-the-less, she persisted.
For those young female entrepreneurs starting out in competitions or hoping to make their mark in the STEM world, Mikayla and Shannon encourage one thing: be persistent.
“A lot of people are going to say no—no it’s not a good idea, no don’t invest, no it won’t work—but it takes a lot of no’s to get to the yes. You’re always going to find someone who believes in you what you’re doing and your project—even if that person pushing you is your sister.”
Girls are taught at a young age to hear “no” and accept it. Boys, however, take no and turn it into something else. Competitions can help girls learn to do the same. To step into the “no” and learn from it, to make your next shot that much better. However, competition mentors, coaches, and organizers need to be aware of some of the systemic challenges that girls still face.
Helping to make sure that a competition has female role models as well as male; making sure to ask girls the questions as well as boys; connecting girls with STEM at early ages – these are all things that can be done in competitions to make sure that girls are just as likely to catch the “geek” bug and to strive to move forward – just like Shannon and Mikayla did.
“It’s easy to get discouraged when you hear “no” or other setbacks. Girls take no, and they step away. We should teach girls that you can hear “no” and that it’s okay—it’s not the end of it,” said Mikayla.
Both Mikayla and Shannon have heard no plenty of times whether it’s because of their ideas, age, or gender. Through all of these setbacks, they persisted, competing in multiple entrepreneurial pitch competitions, working on their Solar Flare bars on weekends and summers. They never gave up, and now are preparing to launch their company and put their mental nutrition bars out on the market. They are proof that two girls competing in STEM can take these no’s and turn them into something constructive.