Nine groups of Alexandria students presented to a panel of judges from Geneva Capital at the annual DECA Foundation Shark Tank event on Sunday, Jan. 17.

This project not only partnered students with businesses in the Alexandria community, but also gave Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) students an opportunity to win $21,000 in academic scholarships.

“The money isn’t the most important thing,” said senior student Caleb Wendel. “This was probably the best learning experience I’ve had in my high school career. The scholarship is just the cherry on top.”

Eric Hartmann, Alexandria Area High School business and DECA teacher, said that COVID-19 guidelines limited the number of in-person attendees to 150 guests, but around 500 viewers tuned in to the livestream.

“It is so different being on stage presenting rather than presenting in your living room,” senior student Sydney Larson said. “We knew we had to be confident on stage and share the excitement we had for our project.”

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This year’s prompt was to rebuild customer loyalty and spending affected by business disruption over the last six months. Hartmann said that students select businesses based on their career interests, preferences and the annual topic.

“My one requirement is that they select a locally owned and operated business,” Hartmann said. “We know it is more important now than it has ever been to partner and support local businesses.”

The first place group, Sophie Anderson, Taylor Nelson and Ethan Johnson, received $12,000, or $4,000 per person, for their presentation on Knute Nelson. Some of their ideas included introducing a live website chat, establishing educational blogs and adding a new miniature golf course outside of Grand Arbor.

“We are all excited to see our hard work pay off,” Anderson said. “All three of us plan on attending a four-year university, and the scholarship money will be very helpful to our future. We are so thankful to have a community that continues to support their students.”

The group worked with a Geneva Capital mentor and Knute Nelson employees for their research. To build a business proposal, Anderson said they had to be creative and consider how real-world problems have affected both the local business and healthcare industry as a whole.

“If Knute Nelson decides to use any of our ideas, we would be honored to know that we played a role in making residents’ life easier during a difficult time,” Anderson said.

Most businesses involved with student DECA projects tell Hartmann that they plan to incorporate the ideas presented at some level, no matter how large or small.

The second place group, Aaron Safarik, Dylan Nelson and Sydney Larson, received $6,000, or $2,000 per person, for their presentation on the Andria Theatre.

Ann Hermes, executive director of the theatre, said she plans to have the three students present to her board so they can apply the students’ marketing plan as an integral part of the theatre’s objectives for 2021.

Larson said her group thought of ideas that would allow the theatre to rely less on donors so it could start giving back to the community that has helped it stay afloat since COVID-19 hit.

“It means a lot to know that all the hard work our group has been doing for the past few months led to this success,” Larson said. “The scholarship and the good feeling our group got knowing we are making a difference in the community were great motivators.”

The third place group, Zachary Kent and Caleb Wendel, received $3,000, or $1,000 per person, for their presentation on Winning Edge Graphics.

“The project was intense, but the opportunity of working with a local business and making an impact in the community is probably one of the most memorable moments of my high school career,” Wendel said.

He and Kent plan to help implement their ideas and work based on owner Robyn Snyder’s guidelines and feedback, including changes to the business’ jingle, blog, social media accounts, website design and branding.

“I was humbled to see how open Robyn and her team were to our proposals,” Kent said. “I believe that shows the effort our teams put in and the connection our community has with the program.”

Those who would like to view the three-hour competition can do so on the Alexandria Area High school YouTube page, and a condensed video of the event will soon be available online.