Despite the dotcom slump, Businessdynamics' eBusiness Challenge is proving a huge success, says Dorothy Walker
It was clear that the girls meant business. They found themselves at the prestigious London headquarters of one of the world's leading banks, but if the four teenagers felt overawed, they certainly didn't show it. They had a plan for capturing a huge and untapped market - and from the moment they began to present their carefully researched ideas, everyone could see they had a winner.
Their proposal was to create E-do$h, enabling under-18s to shop on the internet, using electronic cash provided by their parents. And it was a triumph, earning the Year 13 girls from Bolton School first prize in last year's eBusiness Challenge, a competition which uses ICT to bring the world of business alive for school students.
The competition is one of a range of initiatives run by the charity Businessdynamics, which for 25 years has been helping 14 to 19-year-olds learn about the opportunities and challenges which await them in business.
Today, enterprise education is a hot topic on the school agenda, and technology is proving a major draw for students. "The eBusiness Challenge grew out of research we did three years ago," says David Millar, chief executive officer of Businessdynamics. "We found one in three students wanted to start their own business - and that young people saw ebusiness as the real future."
Recent history is littered with dotcom disasters, but if every entrepreneur did as much groundwork as the typical competition entrant, at least some commercial crashes could be averted. By the time the finalists make it to the offices of sponsor Deutsche Bank, they have not only hatched an innovative ebusiness idea, but pieced together an extensive business plan, with everything from market projections to cashflow forecasts thoroughly researched. "It is obvious they have really thought about it. Usually one in the team really understands the technology and is excited about what it can do - and that is how the idea comes through. The ideas are fantastic, and the whole package is hugely compelling," says Millar.
Deutsche Bank also helped Business-dynamics develop its ebusiness programme for schools, which covers the fundamentals of setting up an ebusiness. In two days of seminars and exercises, students learn from visiting professionals about how to start and run a company, managing areas such as finance, marketing, human resources and web development. Millar, himself a former teacher, says, "We are trying to take the pressure off teachers, and encourage young people to think about their futures, rather than just drifting into things."
The charity also runs an annual congress, ICT Live, taking 500 students to Paris to hear speakers from global companies such as Microsoft and Cisco Systems.
Another industry giant, IBM, works with Businessdynamics on an initiative around Bluetooth, the networking technology that enables a range of electronic devices to communicate, without the need for wires. IBM offices around the country invite schools from their local communities to take part.
An IBM professional visits a school to introduce Bluetooth, and pupils are invited to come up with ideas for a new Bluetooth product. They follow up with an intensive day at the IBM office, learning about all the areas of expertise required to make a success of the product, and teleconferencing with a Bluetooth guru in the US to verify that their product will actually work. Business plans are built and presented, and each day's winning team goes forward to a grand final in London.
"Part of the programme is designed to help them develop generic skills, such as working in teams and presenting," says Mark Wakefield, IBM's corporate community relations manager in the UK. "They see people go about their daily jobs, and discover you have to be a techie to work in the IT sector."
The company also works to attract more young women to the sector. Two of its offices run virtual mentoring programmes, year-long schemes which begin with a summer ICT and science camp for teenage girls. Each pupil is mentored by a female IBM professional, a role model who encourages her to make informed choices about subjects such as ICT, maths and science.
At Bolton School, the eBusiness Challenge is used as a follow-up to a two-day Businessdynamics programme for both boys' and girls' divisions of the school. Run by the careers department, it focuses on bringing a business idea to market. Careers assistant Christine Sutcliffe says:
"Although the programme isn't specifically aimed at ebusiness, ICT features in almost every topic covered, from human resources to advertising.
Afterwards, we run our own mini-competition, although any team, not just the winners, can go ahead and enter the eBusiness Challenge."
Last year's eBusiness Challenge prizewinners - Ruth Abbott, Beth Green, Lisa Griffiths and Charlotte Jepps - were rewarded with a well-deserved trip to San Francisco. "Theirs was a fantastic idea," says Sutcliffe, one of several people, including some of the judges, who were enthusiastic about turning the concept into a real venture. "We tried to persuade the girls to take it forward as a business, but they felt they had a lot on - it was their final year, and they were committed to their studies," she says. For students who do wish to take ideas further, Businessdynamics has close links with organisations such as The Prince's Trust, which can provide funding and mentorship to young entrepreneurs.
Tel: 020 7620 0735 www.businessdynamics.org.uk
A typical two-day ebusiness programme for schools costs pound;150 for up to 32 pupils. The final of this year's eBusiness Challenge takes place next month in London.
Tel: 02392 561000