Kenny Macino was an entrepreneur before she knew exactly what that meant. A fellow student at Bailey Junior High, where Macino is an eighth-grader, so loved Macino’s life-like sock doll made of cloth, buttons, and string that the student offered $3 to take one off her hands.
Another classmate pulled out four single-dollar bills for one of her own. Macino’s English teacher, who noticed these dolls being propped up on desks, asked her to tailor-make one for him, too, a price that Macino set at $5.
After Kenny made a black sock rabbit with fluffy ears, brown button eyes, and stitching the teacher’s name across the belly, the teacher, surprised by its attention to detail, forked over $10, saying, “I’m happy to pay for what it’s really worth.”
No surprise that Macino was a finalist in the What’s Your Big Idea Entrepreneurship Contest, the annual (now in year 16) inventor-in-the-making challenge sponsored by Arlington ISD and the Greater Arlington Chamber of Commerce.
Each year students from third to eighth grade can develop original inventions with few limitations. Students often produce the strangest, most novel concepts – like an ink pen that can check your temperature or an app that won’t allow you to log into your Chromebook until you’ve answered questions about what you learned the day before. (Teachers love this one).
Most of them are good for laughs – how cute, they are told, before being handed a medal and ushered across the stage at UTA’s College Park Center while giving high fives to dignitaries like AISD Superintendent Dr. Marcelo Cavazos and Chamber President & CEO Michael Jacobson.
Yet others are pretty good – so good when I asked Alicia Collins-Butler, director of the education workforce and community development for the chamber, if she could provide me a rundown of all the ideas, she shot me one of those. “I-could-but-then-I’d-have-to-kill-you” glares.
“Oh, no, we don’t do that,” she said.
First-place winners are invited to an exclusive one-week “The BIG Idea Lab” Summer Camp, where students learn what it means to be an entrepreneur at the feet of some entrepreneurial Yodas.
The participants get training on commercializing a concept, managing resources, initiating business ventures. They also get to expand upon their winning idea. It’s not Shark Tank – but close enough that Collins-Butler and Jacobson would like to protect ideas that might one day hit the marketplace.
“We know that tomorrow’s solutions are walking around in the head of young people today,” Jacobson says. “It’s percolating in their brains.”
So that’s what Big Idea is about.
Getting those ideas out. And keeping them right here, in Arlington.
“Amazon started in Jeff Bezos’ garage in Seattle,” says Broderick Green, executive director of Arlington’s Economic Development Corporation, who ought to know. Arlington plucked him from Amazon.
“When you have real-world problems, sometimes the people in it every day can’t solve it because they are too busy doing the day-to-day stuff,” he continues. “You need an outside viewpoint to come in and tackle it.”
Green wants students to know that their ideas are valid.
“I would love to have the opportunity to work with them in coming up with more ideas and businesses,” Green says. “My goal is to keep them here, to make sure they are growing and adding innovation to this community because we need it.”
Teachers love Big Idea because it teaches teamwork, problem-solving, and critical thinking. As for the city, a successful idea could create jobs and give it a cultural identity.
All that leads to a strong city.
“I think it’s great that this program exists,” says Green, hired late last year. “What frustrates me sometimes is when you have a theory and don’t get a chance to apply it. Hopefully, you will have a great idea to turn it into the next Fortune 500 company.”
And keep it right here in Arlington.