Growing our own entrepreneurs and keeping them in Polk County, especially in STEM-related fields, remains a focus the economic development community.

To that end, SlingShot Polk encourages people under the age of 25 to innovate or design their own inventions and start their own businesses. To help, SlingShot Polk offers prize money to get the winning projects off the ground.

The competition takes a few months to gather entries, then whittle them to semifinalists and then finalists. Finalists — teams or individuals who received one-on-one mentoring in the final stages of the competition — pitch their proposals to a panel of “Shark Tank”-like judges, who select the top three projects.

The program started as a collaboration between the Central Florida Development Council, the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, and Florida Southern College. After the first year, the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce was asked to take on the initiative as the primary organizer, said Sarah Breed, the chamber’s director of initiatives.

“Because we do want to strengthen the talent pipeline and keep our talent right here in Polk County, we felt that SlingShot would be an avenue where we could aid in this process,” Breed said. “Connecting employers with budding entrepreneurs and future employees is a critical step in achieving these goals.”

Here are four things you should know about SlingShot Polk.

Community Partnerships

For the 2019 competition, the chamber partnered with United Way of Central Florida to encourage students to solve real-world problems affecting Polk County.

“We (addressed) the issues they are already working on related to health, income and education,” Breed said.

That led to a relationship with Crystal Lake Elementary School, which was designated a community school this year and is working on strategies and implementation, said Andrea Hagan, Entrepreneurship Center coordinator at the school.

After attending training and mentoring sessions, five competitors pitched their ideas to a group of judges at Crystal Lake Elementary. A team of three Lakeland Christian middle school students won for their Bucket Farm Project. The girls got the school involved by doing things like painting the 5-gallon buckets, adding soil and the like. “The girls are selling their buckets at the Lakeland Farmers Market,” said Hagan, who mentioned that the project will likely be implemented at her school.

SlingShot Polk Winners

The second-place team also has an idea to be shared. That group of Florida Southern College students has already opened a boutique to “sell” hip, cool clothes to students who earn points for good grades and good behavior. They also offer the Southwest Elementary School students tips on style and fashion.

Why SlingShot?

“Our main value is trying to fill a void in the traditional social-work sector where non-profits generally can’t go after high-risk, high-reward opportunities because they are restricted by donor dollars,” said Justin Heacock, Entrepreneurship Center coordinator at Florida Polytechnic University and chairman of the SlingShot Polk committee. “Our goal is to create an avenue for young entrepreneurs to bring fresh, innovative ideas to solve traditional social issues using the power of entrepreneurship.”

Programs like SlingShot help motivate students to get involved and turn their ideas into reality. Breed called them “incubators for our future innovators.”

“It is important for students to have outlets such as this to test their ideas, receive feedback, and perhaps even win a little cash to help their concept become a reality,” she said.

Unexpected Outcomes

Hagan said an unexpected outcome of holding the “pitch” and awards ceremony at Crystal Lake was the support the school received from parents. “We engaged with parents on a deeper level. Some wanted to volunteer, others said they didn’t know the school had such needs,” she said.

Through the program, students learn about creativity and innovation in an entrepreneurial competition with prizes that will help bring their ideas to reality. “The LCS girls will continue to grow their prototype and market share,” Hagan said. “They’ve already said for every bucket they sell, they would donate one. They have that philanthropic feeling already. It’s learning and engagement in school and in the community.”

Heacock said his goal for the program is to “be recognized as a focal point in the community for bringing Polk County’s problems into the arms of young entrepreneurs to solve. In order to get there we will need to do a better job of finding champions in schools to drive better engagement from universities and high schools. Once we make young entrepreneurs more aware of the problems then we can start driving those ideas to more outcomes.”

The future

Breed and Heacock said the chamber and its partners will evaluate the program to decide the theme for next year. They would like to see more sponsors, more student entries and a larger pool of prize money.

Heacock said the “long-term goal of this is for some of these successfully tested projects to have enough metrics and history to open up the opportunity for full funding from organizations like United Way.”

He said the best part of SlingShot is engaging Polk County’s youth.

“Traditionally, most students would never interact with these problems until they are older in life and choose to volunteer their time to help their community. I love thinking of the long-term impact you could create if you put these problems in front of young and hungry students. I hope that SlingShot Polk can create a generation of young entrepreneurs that are more aware and willing to make an impact in their community.”

Hagan said she’s been inspired and encouraged in her first year with the program.

“What they’re developing can be applied here in the Crystal Lake community. It supports the work we’re doing here to improve academics and health. What better way to engage our youth. For a sixth grader to know that they can engage our community, that’s a stronger citizen for us in 10 or 20 years.”