All eyes focused on 20 high school students on June 28 at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, as five groups of students presented innovative, technology-centered product ideas to a room full of parents, community advocates, investors and representatives from Atlanta BridgeCommunity’s member companies. Creative ideas ranged from a technology to protect phones from water damage, to a pill with the potential to monitor and track health issues related to heart problems and diabetes. 

The student showcase was made possible by the Atlanta BridgeCommunity, which was founded by Coca-Cola employees Anthony Newstead and Bill Maynard in 2014. The BridgeCommunity is a unique commercialization program that aims to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Atlanta through startup engagement, partnerships a corporate member-to-member network and a local community initiative to help high school students build technical skills.

Member companies Coca-Cola, Cox Enterprises, The Weather Company, Capgemini, SunTrust, Porsche, Philips Arena, and IHG come together to make all of this happen.

Over the past few years, the startup engagement has matured and has attracted startups from all over North America to come to Atlanta. This year, the community outreach program kicked off under the leadership of Coca-Cola employee Valarie Mackey. The BridgeCommunity created a pillar to give back to the Atlanta community while simultaneously investing in the future pool of technology entrepreneurs.

“Seeing the students grow and develop during the four-week coding and entrepreneurship camp and the follow-up business basics workshops has been enlightening," Mackey said. "I am convinced we have startup founders in this group.” 

Targeted high schools are located in underserved, untapped communities where students aren’t generally exposed to all of their opportunities. These programs help students believe, as Newstead put it, “As long as you have passion, you can make it happen.”

The camp was facilitated by nonprofit organizations Technology Association of Georgia Education Collaborative (TAG- Ed) and SteamSport. In addition, mentors from the BridgeCommunity taught class segments and offered up their expertise and resources. The students took weekly trips to various company offices, which allowed them to apply what they were learning to the “real world.”

One mentor, Andy Katz, reflected on the visit to his company GridQuire Labs, “They had to pitch us a business idea where coding and ideation were involved (no lemonade stands). All four of the pitches were fundable business models.” The best part? At the end of the camp, students may have an opportunity to intern for either one of these companies or one of the BridgeCommunity startups to gain invaluable hands-on experience.

Kristina Smith, a TAG-Ed employee, directed the students through the process, working with them eight hours a day and accompanying them on the company trips. “I’m a firm believer of experiential learning and exposure," she said. "It’s impossible for children to get a real understanding of what these companies do and what work-life after college looks like from the classroom.”

Throughout the four weeks, students learned hands-on coding and technical skills with laptops that they were able to take home after the showcase to ensure they continue with their newly acquired skills.

Each week, students were challenged to come up with technology-driven products/services that would solve societal problems. Brainstorming ideas did not seem to be an issue for the talented young entrepreneurs. As one student, Evelyn Craven, remarked, “It was actually harder to narrow ideas down than to come up with one.”

Eventually, they centered on their favorite idea, which they presented as a group at the Showcase.

Judges reviewed each presentation, ultimately choosing one winning team. Each member took home a new Echo Dot. All judges involved were extremely impressed by the bright young entrepreneurs. One judge from Capgemini, Jonathan Horowitz, remarked, “All the teams had a sense of mission and a belief that the problem they aimed to solve was one that would enrich peoples’ lives.”

For the remainder of the summer, students will be taught classes on different aspects of business, such as how to take a product from idea to launch. Combining the tech-centric camp with business classes will help provide a full view of how to create and run a company or be an "intrapreneur" within a corporate atmosphere. To date, the program has proven beneficial to the students.

“I didn’t even know what a 3D printer was, and now I know how to 3D print… it opened my eyes to networking and how things come together in terms of the full process of making a product," Jordan Jones noted.

Co-founders Newstead and Maynard hope one day this program will come full circle. They imagine the day where they interview a startup to be part of Atlanta BridgeCommunity only to realize that the company is made up of students from this program.

And, clearly, the students hope for the same outcome. Student Chris Allen alleged he wanted to be “A millionaire with a million dollar plan.” And why not? The Atlanta BridgeCommunity is offering these young entrepreneurs the early tools they need to fuel their dreams.