On May 21, 2012, Aria Eppinger, Class of 2020, traveled to Omaha, NE to present her business idea to Warren Buffett. At 10 years old, she was the youngest finalist in the Secret Millionaires Club "Grow Your Own Business Challenge." Administered through By Kids For Kids (BKFK), the challenge seeks to identify and reward creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving skills in children ages 7-16 who present the most compelling business model. More than 3,000 entries were submitted last year, proving that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well, especially in our youngest minds.
With confidence, Aria accepted the $5,000 Grand Prize in the Individual category at the 1st Annual Challenge in recognition of her winning idea, the "Shine So Bright" craft kit.
"I came up with 'Shine So Bright' when my family was making light up sweatshirts at the holidays. It took forever for my dad to finish soldering my sweatshirt. I wanted a quick and easy way to make a beautiful light up design on any piece of clothing. 'Shine So Bright' will sell a kit that contains LEDs, colored conductive thread, switches and batteries through an online website. I will first find a manufacturer, have the kit packaged and then market and sell them on a website and at places like JoAnn Fabrics and Michaels. My customers will be people who want to have bright, cheery clothes that are easy and inexpensive. 'Shine so Bright' is a great family activity, and can be done in social groups such as Girl Scouts and parties." – from the Secret Millionaires Club Learn and Earn website.
On a family vacation in Stamford, CT, Aria's mother, Francesmary Modugno, discovered an advertisement for the contest in a local newspaper and shared it with her children. "I had no idea Aria was so interested, and I didn't really learn about her entry until I received a parental consent email from BKFK," she recalls with humor. "I thought: 'OK, go for it!' And she did, pretty much on her own."
Aria admits that she learned most of what she needed to know by Googling. Basic marketing principles, product presentation, cost estimates; all of these were required components to complete the application process. She was also inspired by the super hero princess outfits created on PBS's SciGirls show, through which young girls are encouraged to use engineering and science in their everyday lives.
"That's where I learned about conductive thread," says Aria. "Conductive thread is not my invention, neither are LEDs or battery packs. 'Shine So Bright' is the craftbook that puts it all together and makes it easier for you to use, with modifications that simplify the process. But the snap caps are my invention, and I have a preliminary patent for them."
Her father accompanied her on the trip to Omaha, and her mother, who stayed behind to run a large international conference here in Pittsburgh, sent Aria off with one of the most important lessons: "She put a sticker on each page of my presentation to remind me to smile," recalls Aria.
Aria walked away with the Grand Prize, and 10 Class B Shares in Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, and did what came naturally: she said thanks. She donated a percentage of her winnings to the local Food Bank, the Animal Rescue League, and the Montessori program at her former school. And with the rest, she covered the costs of building a prototype and creating a winning presentation.
Since then, Aria has continued to work on her prototype. She participated in the Children's Museum's Mini Maker Faire as one of their Featured Makers, and learned a lot about consumer behavior and product development.
"The product continues to evolve. In the original packaging, the battery pack lays in flat. Now, you can slip it into a kind of hinge, which looks better and is so much easier to use. We've also figured out better prototype snap-caps (which allow you to change your light up design)," she says enthusiastically. "But the most important part is the teaching part," she asserts. "It just goes to show you that most everything we do that seems cool and spectacular, and even easy, you still have to learn how to do it."
Learning and growing is what drives this bright, curious young girl the most, and she has a lot of fun doing it. She has already begun talking to several companies in hopes of licensing her product to them. They invite her out, pay for her travel expenses, and she gets to pitch them her idea. The first company she visited in August 2012 was so impressed with her product and presentation, they asked her to stick around and make an additional presentation for their product development team.
"I got a job offer from one of the companies, for seven years from now. They told me to stop by before I finish college," Aria proudly shares. "Another company offered me an internship when I turn 16. And, a lot of these companies have other kinds of jobs besides just business. They have art and design; I wouldn't just be a business person."
Her success with BKFK has brought her unexpected fame, as well. On April 19, Aria was invited to the New York Stock Exchange to ring the closing bell and announce the 2013 "Grow Your Own Business" finalists.
"I actually didn't get to push the button, but it was fun," she recalls. "There were representatives from five companies, and I represented BKFK."
She will also sit on the panel of judges for this year's competition, traveling to Omaha for the event.
New to the WT community, Aria joined the City Campus fifth grade in the fall of 2012.
"WT seemed like a great fit, with its Advanced Math and Language Arts programs," says Jeff Eppinger, Aria's father. "We were attracted to the strong academic program and the individualized education."
As a participant of WT's Academic Enrichment and Challenge program, Aria feels like she's found her place at WT. She was able to write her own autobiography, in which she shared her adventures with a few of her classmates and teachers. And, she's looking forward to promoting the contest and other entrepreneurial activities at WT.