ROGERSVILLE - An idea that recent Cherokee High School graduate Jessica Steele came up with to entertain children she was babysitting has earned her the top award in the nation for young entrepreneurs.
Having already won regional and state competitions for entrepreneurship with the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA), Steele, 18, was invited to place her product plan entitled "Kiddie Pads" in competition at the FCCLA national meeting in Anaheim, Calif., earlier this month.
The product is a playhouse for children made from card tables and fabric with various designs.
Steele was judged against the top entrepreneur students from every state in the country, as well as Puerto Rico. She received the highest score in the nation - 97 out of 100 - as well as a gold medal in the entrepreneurship category.
Aside from designing and building three prototype "Kiddie Pads" for the competitions, Steele also developed a 63-page business plan which included contingencies for every aspect of business, including financing the start-up costs, rent and utilities, labor and materials, and setting a retail price which allowed for a 35 percent profit margin.
Another notebook showed various design ideas for a Kiddie Pad, including a school bus, fire station, car, princess house, school and others.
She started working on the project in January while she was still in Joyce Phillips' family and consumer sciences class at Cherokee. Phillips is the FCCLA advisor for CHS.
"I thought of the idea because I babysat a lot when I was younger, and what I'd do with them is set up playhouses by setting up card tables and throwing a sheet over it," Steele told the Times-News Sunday. "I've got a lot of different designs - a book with about 20 pages."
Phillips said one thing that put the Kiddie Pads ahead of the competition was the number of different designs available, and how easy it was to set up and store.
"She uses card tables, and so you just have to pop them up, put the display on it, and when the children are tired, it's easy to take back down," Phillips said. "I think it would be a great seller for grandparents; when the children come to visit you'd have playhouse ready for them."
The trip to the nationals in Anaheim was a real treat for Steele, who had never flown in an airplane before and had never been to California. Despite being a business competition, the trip wasn't all business.
Steele also visited Disneyland, the Pacific Ocean, Hollywood, and got to see where the cast from the Harry Potter film series had imprinted their hands in concrete the night before in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
The competition was held July 11, and Steele received her gold medal on July 12.
She admitted that some of the competition had her worried. One student created her own fashion business and had an elaborate model of her business set up.
But in the end, the judges gave Kiddie Pads the highest marks.
"They recommended that we start up our business because they thought it was a really good idea," Steele said.
But business might not be the career path that Steele chooses. She received a full scholarship to attend Lincoln Memorial University and her plans right now are to study either Pre-Med or Education.
"I want to work with kids," she said. "Maybe be a pediatrician."