A Publication of WTVP

Call it Shark Tank-lite for teens

by Nick Vlahos | Photo by Ron Johnson |
Pontiac Township High School science teacher Paul Ritter
Pontiac Township High School science teacher Paul Ritter

Pontiac High School teacher and coach Paul Ritter is channeling the inner entrepreneur in his students

Paul Ritter is in his 50s, but he might be one of the biggest cheerleaders in central Illinois.

Much of Ritter’s energy — and Ritter seems to have a lot of it — is invested in helping to identify, nurture and salute students who aspire to be innovators and entrepreneurs. That’s true whether they’re trying to develop a new product or help solve some social ill.

“I love it when people come up to me and say, ‘Well, kids aren’t like they used to be.’ Well, no, they’re not,” said Ritter, a science teacher at Pontiac Township High School. “They’re able to do so many things that we could only dream of.”

Dreamers and others are welcome to participate in the Celebrating High School Innovators (CHSI) program Ritter helped establish about a decade ago. Personnel from Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities and the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association bolster the not-for-profit group.

Interested high school students, individually or in teams, submit essays and videos about their proposed projects to CHSI. There are five categories — arts, media and literature; business entrepreneurship; health and nutrition; social entrepreneurship; and science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Annual competition begins in late winter, when students present their ideas to professionals who serve as judges. Top teams are invited to the finals, which in 2024 are scheduled for April 6 at Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington. Sales pitches and questions and answers with judges are part of it, akin to a kinder-and-gentler student version of the TV show Shark Tank.

“They have to have presentation skills. The ability to write. The ability to put yourself out there and sell yourself to a point where people believe in you,” Ritter said about the students.

The top five finishers receive a $1,000 grant, college-scholarship opportunities and chances through manufacturers to acquire additional funding. Money for CHSI comes from donations Ritter solicits from universities, industry and other private donors.

The ‘Oprah of Pontiac’

“Essentially, we’re creating a pipeline for these kids that will push them into warp drive,” Ritter said. “I want to be like the Oprah of Pontiac: ‘You get a thousand dollars, and you get a thousand dollars.’ I want to funnel … needed, well-used money and networking and knowledge to these kids.”

In 2023, more than 50 teams and 150 students participated, according to Ritter. Participants have come from throughout the U.S. and from as far away as Germany and Turkey. International involvement became more prevalent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the competition became virtual.

Making communities ‘suck less’ is ‘worth every second’

Closer to home, a 2018 graduate of Metamora Township High School found the CHSI program invaluable.

Spring Bay native Jackson Nannie was part of a 2015 group that organized the First Annual Peoria Project. It was inspired by the national DoSomething organization, a not-for-profit that helps young people create positive change in the world.

Among other things, the project collected peanut-butter donations for Peoria Friendship House to make more than 3,000 sandwiches for those in need. Nannie and friends partnered with high school Key Clubs to make blankets for children lodged at Family House Peoria.

The group’s slogan certainly was memorable: “Make Peoria Suck Less.”

“I’m not sure I would use the same slogan today,” said the 23-year-old Nannie, who works locally for a medical software company. “Since then, I’ve spent time in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and Peoria definitely sucks the least. That’s how 14-year-old me wanted to approach the situation. I thought it was a good way to grab peoples’ attention.”

It must have grabbed the attention of the CHSI judges, too. Eight years later, Nannie still waxes rhapsodic about the experience.

“It helped me put ideas into action,” he said. “Everyone can come up with an idea. The program itself helped me to implement my idea and to speak on it.

“I can’t emphasize enough how much the program did for me. … It was worth every second.”

Solving real problems

Madeline Yoon might be discovering that now.

The 17-year-old Yoon is an incoming senior at Barrington High School, in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. She and three classmates — Nishka Kolhe, Aidan Marchese and Grahme Valskis — had a top-five CHSI finish this year with a brush that can clean various types of cooking grills.

“Grilling was a hobby that we all shared,” said Yoon, who resides in Hoffman Estates. “We saw a problem in the industry, and we just wanted to solve it.”

The DotekiBrush — “doteki” means “dynamic” in Japanese — consists of a durable handle and interchangeable heads. A standard brush is tailored for grated grills, according to Yoon, while a pumice head is geared for flattop grills. The interchangeable array includes a spatula and a carving fork.

Yoon and her colleagues contacted a company in China to make a prototype. The CHSI presentation was more nerve-wracking, Yoon suggested, but became easier as they received feedback from other students and potential investors.

“By the end of it, it was a really fun experience,” Yoon said. “It helps with your public-speaking skills. So many people came around and asked what we were selling and wanted to buy right then and there.”

That opportunity might happen relatively soon. In May, Yoon and friends received $20,000 from the Barrington business-incubator program. They competed in a national event in July in Chicago. Over the next year, mass manufacture and sales of the DotekiBrush might commence.

A proud papa

Ritter takes a personal pride in such accomplishments and plans to expand CHSI with more partners in academia, business and industry, domestic and international.

Not that there isn’t enough to keep him busy in Pontiac. He teaches a full load of science classes, coaches the Pontiac boys golf team and serves on the Livingston County Board. But CHSI appears to be a higher calling.

“The reality is I get to do and be a part of something so amazing that could have a vast impact not only on the lives of these kids but for the rest of society. How do you not say that’s cool?” Ritter said.

“This whole program is nothing more than coaching, right? It’s just at a higher level of stakes other than a score at the end of the game. It’s coaching for basically the rest of your life.”

Nick Vlahos

Nick Vlahos

is a longtime Peoria print journalist and a regular contributor to Peoria Magazine.