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Emerging Entrepreneurs: Encouraging youth to follow entrepreneurial aspirations

Four finalists participate in Junior Achievement entrepreneurship pitch contest

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January 24, 2024

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN — For the third straight year, four student entrepreneurs from throughout Northeast Wisconsin had the opportunity to showcase their businesses at the Junior Achievement’s Young Entrepreneur Live Competition: Northeast Region.

Finalists — Grace Fuss, Macie Hall, Kaylee Lamers and Harrison Lauer — pitched their youth-founded companies to a group of judges Jan. 22 at the Community First Career Exploration and Financial Literacy Center in Appleton.

“The night is all about celebrating entrepreneurship and experiencing a business-minded spirit within the room,” Mary Beth Tomsyck, development coordinator for Junior Achievement (JA) of Wisconsin Northeast/Winnebago region, said. “Board members, mentors, JA staff, family and friends will gather together to watch the live competition. It’s inspiring and high energy.”

From cupcakes and sewn items to business-to-business sales and homemade decorations, the budding entrepreneurs each took a moment in the spotlight as they vied for the $2,500 grand prize and an invitation to the state competition.

“The winner also receives an automatic bid to the state competition in March and a chance to win a $10,000 scholarship,” Tomsyck said.

Competition details
The competition, she said, was open to students in fifth grade through 12th grade in the Northeast region’s 17 counties — Brown, Door, Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Marinette, Oconto, Calumet, Dodge, Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Manitowoc, Outagamie, Waupaca, Waushara, Winnebago, Menominee and Shawano.

“They had to have owned their own business for at least one year,” she said.

Now in its third year, Tomsyck said the regional pitch competition is right in line with JA’s pillars for student success.

“One of those (pillars) is financial literacy,” she said. “Another is work readiness. And the third pillar of success is entrepreneurship. We know all three of those things are important life skills for young people to know. So, it aligns perfectly with what our mission is.”

The application process happened during November and December last year.

Tomsyck said finalists were notified in late December and paired with a mentor, from whom they received advice.

“Other parameters were given to help them feel prepared and successful coming into the competition,” she said. “We try to set them up for success and help them gain confidence in all aspects of this process.”

Tomsyck said the four finalists — Lauer (YourCo.Store), Lamers (Stitches and Sweets), Hall (Sweet Tooth Cakes by Macie) and Fuss (Fighting Cancer with Grace) — were selected for the pitch contest using a variety of different criteria, including charisma and hustle, business success and financials, growth potential and social involvement.

“These criteria are also used by the judges the night of the event,” she said. “The winner is based on those factors. It is a group effort by the judging committee. They pull their scores together and award the top place winner.”

During the event, Tomsyck said, students had the opportunity to share a three-minute video on their business, pitch to a live panel of judges and then receive feedback/take questions from the judging panel.

This year’s judges include Karen Hoffman (Kimberly High School), Holly Kowalski (Kay James Design), Amy Pietsch (Fox Valley Technical College Venture Center), Tyrone Powell (Unext LLC) and John A. Swartz (Miller Electric MFG, LLC).

“All the student finalists should be proud of what they’ve accomplished, in addition to going to school and other activities,” she said. “They are great role models for their communities and schools, too.”

Tomsyck said the skills the budding entrepreneurs have learned during the process include perseverance, creativity, problem-solving, resilience, leadership, networking and communication.

For more information on the local JA office, visit

Macie Hall (Sweet Tooth Cakes by Macie)

Hall — the 15-year-old owner of Sweet Tooth Cakes by Macie — said her interest in baking started at a young age.

“When I was in fourth grade, I found a way to use my creative skills and independence in the kitchen in the form of baking cakes and cupcakes for people,” the Neenah High School freshman said. “I enjoyed the creative process of making cakes.”

Sweet Tooth Cakes by Macie, Hall said is a cake and cupcake business offering a variety of cake flavors and homemade buttercream or cream cheese frosting.

Finding success locally — Hall said she’s sold out of her creations at the Neenah Helping Hands Craft Fair for the past three years.

“I’ve remained profitable with custom orders over the past few years, despite inflation in groceries and packaging materials,” she said.

Being a young entrepreneur, Hall said, is exciting because “I get to be creative and turn my ideas into reality.”

“I am not completely sure if I see myself pursuing it as a career when I am older, only because there are so many other things and opportunities I would also like to try,” she said.

After graduating high school, Hall said she would like to go to a four-year college to further her studies.

“As for my business, I would like for it to continue to be fun and enjoyable, and I plan to continue through high school,” she said.

Hall said she sees her participation in the JA pitch contest as exciting “because it is an amazing opportunity and experience.”

Kaylee Lamers (Stitches and Sweets)

Sixteen-year-old Lamers — a sophomore at Brillion High School and owner of Stitches & Sweets — said she got her start by hand-sewing cat toys.

“I then received a sewing machine as a gift and started sewing more items,” she said. “I loved the idea that I could create many different items, and I truly enjoyed what I was doing.”

Stitches & Sweets, Lamers said, offers one-of-a-kind sewn items.

“I started selling some of my products and making a good profit,” she said.

One of the biggest challenges she’s encountered thus far, Lamers said, has been time management.

“Being a high school student with a busy schedule, making time for running a small business takes discipline,” she said. “Some of the success I have experienced is developing new products and having store owners approach me about selling my products in their stores.”

That, Lamers said, has been “a rewarding feeling.”

“I can interact with my customers and see how supportive the people around me have been,” she said.

Though only 16, Lamers said she intends to see where the business takes her.

“I would like to pursue this as a career if my business continues to grow and expand,” she said. “I know a few people who have turned a hobby they love into something they profit from. My mom has inspired me with her ambition and commitment.”

Lamers said she plans to continue running Stitches & Sweets in the future, as well as further her knowledge through business classes.

Lamers said the JA pitch contest has been an exciting experience for her.

“It has already helped me gain new customers as there is a lot of interaction leading up to the competition,” she said.

Grace Fuss (Fighting Cancer with Grace)

Fuss is a 17-year-old junior from West De Pere High School and an active member of DECA — an organization that teaches emerging leaders important business skills for the future.

Fuss said she started Fighting Cancer with Grace five years after her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I saw how supportive others were toward my mom, and I wanted to provide that same comfort to others,” she said.

To do what she could to pay the kindness her family received forward, she started making glassware, shirts and wood crafts in exchange, sold Green Bay Packer Family Night tickets and had lemonade stands to raise money to compile care packages.

“(Today), I sell candles, homemade wooden decorations, glassware and shirts,” she said.

One of the challenges Fuss said she’s run into since launching the business in 2019, is learning what products sell better than others.

As an entrepreneur, Fuss said she enjoys seeing her hard work pay off — when she’s able to donate care packages.

“I have been able to donate 1,093 care packages to cancer patients and 712 to healthcare workers,” she said.

Fuss said she looks to her grandfather — an entrepreneur himself.

“His parents owned Linskens Honey, which was then passed down to him, and has been in the family for more than 100 years,” she said.

As she enters the second half of her junior year, Fuss said she hopes to pursue a degree in business.

“In my future, I want to major in business at college, which will help me grow my nonprofit organization into something bigger,” she said. “I will do this by creating a youth advisory board, which will help my nonprofit be successful while furthering my education.”

Being a finalist in the pitch contest, Fuss said, allowed her to practice her business skills.

“It will also help me grow my business because it will be getting more visibility,” she said.

Harrison Lauer (YourCo.Store)

Describing himself as a social person, 17-year-old Harrison Lauer — a senior at Neenah High School — said entrepreneurship fits him well.

“Entrepreneurship is exciting because it offers both a creative and business outlet for me,” he said. “I care about my business, and it is fulfilling to be working on something day in and day out that gives me purpose in a way a normal teenage job could not.”

Lauer said his business — YourCo.Store — specializes in business-to-business sales and offers a company store platform.

“This platform allows us to set up custom websites and products — such as polos, tees, sweatshirts, hats, etc. — all branded with the company’s logo for their employees,” he said.

Lauer said what sets them apart from similar companies, “is that we sell in a style called Print on Demand (POD).”

“This means products will ship directly to the buyer’s door, and companies will have no minimum order quantities,” he said. “This makes YourCo.Store an especially great option for companies with remote workers or multiple office locations.”

Lauer said he got his start in the business realm by helping his dad run the store platform toBoogie and the Yo-Yoz.

“Then, the company he worked for needed a store, and I had all of the tools to make that happen,” he said. “So, I did, and YourCo.Store was (created). My biggest success has been an $18 profit in Q4 — you should have seen the smile on my face.”

Lauer said his dad has “definitely been a big role model” to him in his entrepreneurial journey.

“He is always there for encouragement and business conversations,” he said. “He is quite accomplished in the business world in his own right — and it is my mission to fill the shoe prints he has left behind.”

The biggest obstacle Lauer said he’s run into so far is being faced with a strategic error in his business.

“I offer the store part for free in the hope customers and their employees will use it, but the store gets placed at the bottom of the ëtotem poleí for many customers because they are busy,” he said. “Not much drive is created on the customer end to work with me to create the store or drive employees to use it, ultimately.”

Looking to the future, Lauer said he is considering different pricing models or customer retention strategies to maximize profits and strengthen customer relationships.

“(This) will make a partnership with YourCo.Store something companies take seriously and are actively engaged in,” he said.

One of the best aspects of being an entrepreneur, Lauer said, is that “my successes are mine and my failures are mine.”

“It gives me a sense of control over my life, which makes me feel more comfortable living it,” he said.

After high school, Lauer will be attending the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he has been accepted into the business program — with an emphasis on entrepreneurship.

“I will continue my business, wherever that takes me,” he said. “I am excited to see how far I can push myself and my ideas.”

Lauer said the pitch contest provided him with an opportunity to test his business on the panel — to see if there are any potential flaws or shortcomings in his business model.

“I see it as an opportunity to adapt, even if, ultimately, I fail,” he said.

And the winner isÖ
Each finalist had the opportunity to pitch their business ideas to the panel of judges — which included a condensed informational video, a three-minute live pitch and a Q&A portion with the judges.

The panel of judges chose Lamers as the 2024 winner.

Lamers received the $2,500 grand prize and earned an automatic bid for the state competition in February.

She was also chosen as the Audience Choice Winner, receiving an additional $500.

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