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MEHS students mix business with philanthropy

A small business class at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka is gearing up for a commercial venture this spring. The students have organized a company, appointed officers, and sold shares of stock. Their product – which will be out soon – is an elastic, $5 wristband with the words “Living on the Edge.”

If all goes well, the students should earn back the money they invested in the business, plus a profit that they’ll distribute to shareholders as a dividend.

While this all sounds fairly typical for a high school business class, it is actually something quite innovative. The Mt. Edgecumbe students developed their business plan with the goal of helping Sitka’s homeless population.

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The wristbands read “Living on the Edge” because, as Richard Corbett – a senior from Dillingham – says, “Who knows more about living on the edge than the homeless?”

Corbett is vice-president of marketing for the class. He says he and the other business students at the state-run boarding school wanted to use their talents to make a difference in Sitka.

“I want to leave a standing footprint in the community. To let people know that we care. Even though we’re from out-of-town, this is our second home. This is where we spend most of the year. We want to see it be as good as it can be.”

Homelessness in Sitka has become an increasing concern. A consortium of non-profits, government agencies, and faith-based groups participated in a coordinated statewide event in January called “Project Homeless Connect.” Forty-five Sitkans came forward to sign up for available services, browse donated clothing, and enjoy a hot meal.

Event director Mim McConnell says she and others with Sitka’s Easter Group were surprised – and delighted – when the Mt. Edgecumbe students invited them to visit the class to hear their pitch.

“The ingenuity, creativity – just coming up with an idea like that. And their generosity in wanting to help the people in Sitka who don’t have what they need.”

If all goes well, the project could generate up to $3,000 for Project Homeless Connect, which McConnell says might help fund a drop-in shelter in Sitka, or similar support services.

That’s a lot of wristbands. But Kayla Merculief, a junior from Sitka who serves as the company’s CEO, says they chose their product through research and consensus.

“We took a Facebook survey, and people voted more for wristbands and body pillows. But we voted as a class and we chose wristbands, because we work as a team, and we make decisions together.”

The students have purchased an initial inventory of 1,200 wristbands, which they’ll sell wherever they can. Sitka has any number of retail possibilities, including direct sales at craft bazaars.

Merculief is hoping the wristband project picks up momentum of its own.

“I was hoping to start a big campaign to keep on going, maybe even after this class is over, and we could have a business club. And this could be our big project. We could keep selling wristbands and keep donating money.”

The students hope to get a TV spot to help launch the project, says vice-president for public relations Robert Nielsen, a sophomore from Anchorage. Neilsen says he’s also planning on putting ads onscreen in Sitka’s movie theaters.

As the youngest member of the management team, Nielsen expects to play a role in fine-tuning it for success in the future.

“I’ll probably be the one who’s examing the pros and cons of what’s happening. As a sophomore, I’ll be able to see a lot of it, the bad things that are going on. Like, We need to fix this! And I’ll see the good things, too. We need to do more of this.”

And we probably will be seeing more of this. The Mt. Edgecumbe students have tapped into a new business model with interesting potential for hitching up the revenue-generating power of commerce, with the philanthropic interests of non-profits. It’s called a B Corporation.

Mim McConnell explains.

“Basically, it’s a corporation, a social model, and the focus is on altruism – whatever the social cause might be – helping people in need, and the whole business model is built around that concept.”

B Corporations are already legal in many states, and they support a wide variety of endeavors once exclusively the territory of the nonprofit. McConnell says she’s written state legislators urging them to explore bridging the commercial and non-profit worlds in Alaska.

“These students, in my mind, have captured that,” McConnell says, “and it’s really exciting.”

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