Teaching teens through friendly competition

High school students on 17 teams participated in the 2019 Shark Tank Youth Contest in April.

Central Bank of Kansas City invites students to form business plans in a Shark Tank-style competition to promote financial education and entrepreneurship in its community.

By Beth Mattson-Teig


Central Bank of Kansas City created its own version of Shark Tank to give local high school students a hands-on lesson about entrepreneurship.

What started as a fun idea to engage teens has grown into an annual event that has doubled in size since the $200-million asset community bank in Kansas City, Mo., introduced it in 2015. The 5th Annual Shark Tank youth competition, held last April, attracted 67 students from four high schools around the Kansas City metro.

Similar to the TV show, teams work to create a concept and a business plan that they present to a panel of judges. Rather than having weeks or months to develop and polish ideas, this version of Shark Tank shrinks the competition to a one-day challenge. Teams are provided with a template to guide them through the different components in a business plan, such as identifying startup costs and financing sources, and strategizing plans for marketing and distribution.

“Entrepreneurship has been a hot topic both nationwide and in the Kansas City area, and it is a really valuable skill for kids to learn,” says Sarah Cousineau, marketing director at Central Bank of Kansas City. She adds that participating students not only learn about entrepreneurship but also about all the different pieces that go into starting a business.

“As a CDFI [Community Development Financial Institution], financial education and community outreach has always been a really high priority for us,” Cousineau says. “We saw this as a way to engage high school students in a worthwhile competition.”

Helping schools stretch curriculum

Teams of four high school students register in advance. On the day of the competition, each team gets the same business challenge. The most recent competition challenged students to come up with a startup that provided a particular product or service to assist local citizens or businesses hit by a natural disaster, such as a flood or tornado. Their for-profit business solution also had to sell something that was reasonably priced and offer something different than what groups such as the American Red Cross or Salvation Army already provide.

Cousineau developed the idea and, with the support of Central Bank of Kansas City, has worked hard to bring in partners to make it a success. For example, the local nonprofit Connecting for Good provided computers for each team to use during the competition, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City hosts the event. The University of Missouri–Kansas City (UMKC) Office of Financial Literacy creates the business challenge, supporting materials and directions.

“We are proud to offer this opportunity and help our youth recognize their potential as contributors to the local economy,” says Patricia Palmer, a curriculum consultant at the UMKC Office of Financial Literacy. “Kansas City’s start up community is growing, and we need our youth to realize that they may have a place alongside others in the future.”

Teams of four students were tasked with solving a problem by creating a service or product.

The winning team receives $1,000, and the second-place team receives $500. This year’s winning team, from Raytown South High School, created a business called Komfort Kits, which would sell comfort items for people displaced by flooding or other disasters.

The event is a win for both the participating students and their schools, which are often challenged by tight budgets. Each team works with business experts, who, as judges—the sharks—provide valuable feedback and encouragement. “We just really want to help our urban high school students have a way to stretch their education and do something that they can’t do in the schools,” Cousineau says.

Reaching teens through education

The competition fits with Central Bank of Kansas City’s broader commitment to promote financial education. The community bank was chartered in 1950 and has been certified as a CDFI since 1998.

“It’s really our mission to help distressed areas, and financial education is a passion for the bank,” Cousineau says. “It’s something that people don’t really learn in school, and it can help tremendously.”

The community bank serves a low-income area of the city that is home to a large immigrant population. Its Money Smart programs range from hosting game nights to conducting educational sessions at a women’s shelter.

The Shark Tank event is a fun way to engage teens, Cousineau says, which can be a challenging group to reach. The competition goes beyond just financial education, pushing young people to start thinking about their future and what they might want to do.

“This really shows them that the possibilities are almost endless when they see that almost anyone can be an entrepreneur,” she adds. “You just have to have the right idea at the right time, and the right solution to the right problem.”


Beth Mattson-Teig is a writer in Minnesota.

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