Thursday, May 23, 2013

Warren Buffett's 2013 "Grow Your Own Business" Challenge (I became a STOCKHOLDER!!)

It seems I may be a “little white liar.” Thankfully, I use my white lies for good and not for evil.

My earlier post about last weekend’s Omaha trip with student, Max Wallack, contained an act of misdirection. Yes, Max was a finalist in Warrren Buffett’s annual Grow Your Own Business Challenge.  He was one of five individual grand prize contestants, along with three teams, invited to present  business-concepts to a panel of judges.  The first place award for individual and team innovations was $5,000, and a chance to meet and talk to Warren Buffett as well as the movers and shakers of the investment industry.

My act of misdirection occurred when I referred to a Max Wallack initiative different than the one he technically presented in Omaha.  I mentioned Max’s non-profit that produces products for those suffering from Alzheimer’s.  This initiative is slated to receive profits from Max’s ‘Grow Your Own Business’ invention, so it is related.  But I didn’t want to divulge his real concept, prior to its presentation to judges.

Now that the event is over, I can share with you that his entrepreneurial endeavor is a Bed Bug Exposing Device.  That works! 
Warren Buffet and his GYOB 2013 National Finalists

Bed bugs are more of a problem than some think, taxing multiple U.S. industries, most notably real estate and hospitality.  This invention is greatly needed with unlimited potential.

Just like Max.

Max has been inventing things his whole life.  As a young child he watched his great grandmother fall victim to the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease, which spurred him to invent a variety of adaptive equipment for her use:  a great-granny booster step so she could more comfortably board the family van, and a walker-to-bench that offered her a rest while standing in any sort of line.

Since then, Max has gone on to help others in need, including the homeless with his temporary shelter called, The Home Dome, made solely of recyclable materials. Max's non-profit Alzheimer's organization soon followed, and now, the Bed Bug Exposing Device.

I was lucky to meet Max eight years ago when he was barely 9. He had been double promoted to grade six when he enrolled in a start-up charter school where I taught, an educational site I am proud to say that I, Max’s class and a handful of dedicated teachers and administrators jointly founded.  Today it is a highly successful STEM school (Science, Technology, Electricity and Magic) . . . [sometimes the E and M stand for “engineering and math” but I teach English and like alternative endings]

Max turned 17 about a week ago, yet this summer he begins his junior year in college, which includes several medical school courses.  A neuro-science major, he will likely become a geriatric physician specializing in Alzheimer’s research.  

Many say Max is gifted.

Max says he likes to work hard.

I say his philanthropic bent is a gift, at which he works very hard.

In any event, Max's non-profit Alzheimer's initiative is positioned to receive profits from his Grow Your Own Business submission, the Bed Bug Exposing Device, so at least my “white lie” was relevant. 

It turns out my choice to omit data about his real entry was wise.  Panelists in attendance at the May 19-20 event – sponsored by the Fairholme Foundation and its By Kids For Kids (BKFK) program – urged Max to patent his concept. Quickly. These are renowned investors and at every turn, each encouraged a swift patent.

So without divulging unpatented specifics, Max’s invention is a sensitive but simple system that detects the presence of a bed bug mating pheromone.

Applications are profound for folks looking to rent apartments, buy homes, check into hotels and motels.  Better may be its use by exterminators to determine the success of treatments.  Or for hotel chains to assure themselves and their guests of the pest’s absence.

Of 4,000 student entries, five individual business concepts and three team projects were chosen as finalists, one of which was a Bed Bug Detecting system invented by my student, Max Wallack.  There: The truth is out there.

His project won much attention, but not the final contest, about which none in our group was disappointed.  The whirlwind weekend was filled with workshops, a trip to the Omaha zoo, chances to meet other like-minded students, parents and teachers, opportunities to shares these concepts with Warren Buffett and countless notables in the investment and entrepreneurial worlds.  And we were all flown out, fed, made to feel like kings and queens in breathtaking suites at the Embassy Hotel.  Each of us had already won so much.  
Moments after Max presented his Bed Bug Device to Warren Buffett

The event’s individual winner was 10-year old Matthew Meyer of Cincinnati who won with a brilliant invention, the Write-Right.  It’s a wrist band with finger supports that keep a child’s hand in the correct position to support proper handwriting.   

Matthew is easily one of the most energized, magnetic 10-year olds in the history of Energy and Magnetism (more STEM alternative-endings).  Upon learning he was the event’s grand prize winner, Matthew took to the limelight like a bed bug to a Dickens’ waif. 

My first encounter with Matthew was at dinner our first evening in Omaha. He and his Mom, Elizabeth, were seated at our table. It took a few moments for him to warm up to our little ‘crowd’ but once he did, he was volcanic.  Someone asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, and at first he noted prudently he wanted to get old enough to acquire his driver’s license and a job. Then he segued seamlessly to his other interest: to ultimately grow armpit hair.

One of the parents at our table, the Dad of a contestant who had invented a sensor that could detect a child in trouble in a family swimming pool, asked Matthew why he was so intrigued by this endeavor. 

“Well, so I can pluck them all out … of course.”

Well … of course.

I confess, if Matthew had invented a wristband with finger supports to hold tweezers in an ergonomically-relevant way, to effectively pluck one’s underarms, and I were a judge, I’d have voted for it.  Humor-points plus bonus-points for body hair discussion at dinner with perfect strangers (elite, national contest-winning strangers) …well.  That’s a winning combo for me.

In other armpit-related news, never until last weekend was I SO focused on effective antiperspirant. Our Omaha weekend included briefings on how to best present oneself to the media, and in our Welcome Kits was a packet including Do’s and Don’ts regarding television, radio, phone and print-media interviewing.  Apparently, there are novices out there who violate rules like, “Don’t lie.”

It had never occurred to me that, if interviewed, I MIGHT lie.  But this thought took root, tormenting me constantly, evoking a mammoth flopsweat-response.

I have never been interviewed per se.  I have been the interviewer.  The journalist trying to catch a politician in a lie.  But I have never been in position, personally, to lie.

According to our Kits, “Don’t make up an answer” was so important, it appeared on my media sheet as bullet point number 5 and again as bullet point number 15.

As media personnel swarmed the two-day event with fuzzy microphones on booms and shoulder-hoisted cameras fitted with high-beam spotlights, my armpits threatened to runneth over.

When did Max get five inches taller than me?
Fortunately, I did not end up telling lies on camera, radio, or in print media. Because, technically, I was not interviewed. But I’ll tell you, my new phobia about lying to the press put my Secret Clinical to the test which, alongside Matthew Meyer, won the day!   

Hearty congratulations to Matthew and his teaching mentor and Mom, Elizabeth.  Such a treat being there for the weekend and meeting them, and so many other gifted student entrepreneurs, families and educators.

Meanwhile, I must share that, next to not having to lie to the media, and getting to talk to Matthew Meyer about body hair, my favorite part of the event was Warren Buffett’s speech.  It began not with praise of the Fairholme Foundation or By Kids For Kids sponsors, nor of judges, or investor-panelists who’d completed a robust Q&A. (Oh, Buffett, would indeed acknowledge all of this and each of them.  Just not in the beginning).

He didn’t even launch his speech with praise of the contestants.

He started off lauding teachers.
Finalists, parents and teachers, 2013 GYOB Challenge
It was an impromptu intro that drew upon school-day memories more than 70 years old.  He reminded us that, back then, women only had three career options should they find themselves in need of work: secretary, nurse or teacher. And they were paid next-to-nothing. Despite these obstacles, Warren credits who and what he is today to the successes of multiple teachers who instilled in him a desire to be the best he could be, to do the right thing.

He went on in that vein, then had contestants and their sponsoring teachers stand to be acknowledged.

And then, he gave to each contestant – and their teachers – 10 shares of Class B Berkshire Hathaway stock.

He was quoted in an interview later that day saying his decision to give stock to teachers “just came into my head,” adding that the amount of effort teachers invest in students amazed him in that moment, and so, he chose to make us all shareholders.  Wow.

I set out to support someone who, at the tender age of 17, has already devoted his life – past and future – to the disenfranchised, the homeless, the afflicted.  Max has always inspired me.  And yet, it was my profession – a pretty humble one in many regards – that inspired Warren Buffett.


There I was, thinking the highlight of my weekend was learning about the biochemistry of a bed bug’s love life and the concept of plucked underarms.  Things I, frankly, could not wait to get home to share with my family.  

Should they respond with, ‘Where do you think such ideas come from?” it pleases me no end that Warren Buffett might say, “Well, from some inspiring teacher, of course.”

Well … of course.

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