When 13-year-old Mathew of Flushing, Queens, gathered his index cards and began pitching his anti-bullying app to judges of the virtual 2020 Young Sharks competition, he started to have second thoughts.
“There were many competitors, and I thought there was no way I would win,” the recently graduated 8th grader told us. “But Ronell and my mom were able to help me with my confidence, and I was able to get through it.”
Not only did Mathew get through it — he emerged as winner of the middle school division of the competition.
Mathew is a participant of the Young Mentoring Initiative (YMI) at The Child Center’s Parsons Beacon program, and Ronell John, Assistant Director of Parsons Beacon and coordinator of the YMI program, is Mathew’s mentor.
YMI provides middle- and high school-age youth with positive role models and opportunities to discover their strengths and see themselves in a new light.
In February, one of those opportunities came to Mathew in the form of the Young Sharks competition, sponsored by Dignity of Children and funded by the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD). Inspired by the TV show Shark Tank, Young Sharks invites youth to develop a business idea or prototype that addresses a contemporary issue of their choice. Teams then formulate a business proposal and pitch their ideas to a panel of real-life experts. The winning teams are awarded $1,350 each to bring their product to life.
Through this competition, students come to see themselves as both entrepreneurs and agents of social change.
“Mathew’s team’s project was the Bullies Get Bullied app. The idea originated in our weekly YMI group sessions prior to the COVID-19 shutdown,” John explains.
Basing the concept off of research on bullying statistics among young people ages 12-17, the team built the app to mentor bullies and victims alike, using an in-app behavioral assessment that starts with the questions, “What makes you think you are being bullied?” and “What makes you think you are the bully?” and tailors the rest of the questions from there. The idea is to provide helpful and targeted content including information on how to deal with emotions associated with bullying, inspirational stories, and resources for help.
The team worked together on the app for hours at the center before COVID-19. But the process became more challenging after the pandemic hit, and other team members eventually dropped out due to issues related to the shutdown. Mathew decided to persevere and represent the YMI team on his own.
After three months of hard work and preparation, 12 teams of high-school and middle-school students virtually presented their business ideas to a team of professional entrepreneurs in the semi-finals. Despite fierce competition, our YMI team was one of only three teams to emerge victorious and advance to the middle school finals last month. Six teams of middle school students and six teams of high school students participated in the finals — and our YMI team emerged as the middle school winner!
“It was an intense process,” says John. “However, Mathew’s commitment and hard work to see the project through paid off. He and the other team members who worked on the app now rightly see themselves as entrepreneurs, capable of taking an idea and bringing it to reality. This opens up a whole new world and future for them — and I couldn’t be happier or prouder.”
Mathew cannot wait to use his $1,350 winnings to bring his app to reality. He’s already working to secure endorsements from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, STOMP Out Bullying, and the NYC Department of Education.
“It wasn’t easy to make a presentation because we didn’t know exactly what the app was going to look like,” says Mathew. “We also had no idea what type of expenses that creating an app or this business would have. But with the help of Ronell and my mom, and putting a lot of work into it, we were able to make a very good presentation that I was proud of,” says Mathew.
Reflecting on his win, he adds, “I’m still so very excited that I won. Not just because of the prize, but because of the opportunity that comes with it, including having a mentor assigned to me to help with the business idea. I am so happy and excited to continue with my entrepreneurial journey.”