By Billy Polansky
In June, Sarah Hughes, the Camp Salsa Program Director contacted me and asked if I wanted to be on a panel to hear groups of high school students pitch business plans for new brands of salsa. I would decide whether or not the groups should get microloans to startup their summer salsa enterprises. I was excited to hear the pitches and to be a shark in the shark tank.
Wild ideas are sometimes just that….but sometimes the wildness is what makes them great. Four years ago Jan Swaney told me about a project in Cleveland where kids grow a garden, then make and sell salsa using the veggies. At the time, I was sure this was a wild idea, but the more I thought about it, researched similar projects across the country and spoke with potential partners, the better it looked. In the Summer of 2014, the then-director of MU’s brand new Family Impact Center, Ashley Guillemette, and I put our heads together and pulled together a dynamic team of partners to create Camp Salsa. Today the project is led by the MU Family Impact Center with support from Columbia Public Schools, the City of Columbia’s CARE Program, the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, and numerous local businesses.
On pitch day, at the Family Impact Center, twelve students were split into three groups. Each team had been working to develop their distinct brand of salsa. The pitches were complete with powerpoint presentations, colorful photos, and matching outfits. One even included a short comedy routine! The presentations were compelling and their products good. Someone once told me: “There’s got to be sizzle, it draws people in, but if you don’t have a steak to back up that sizzle, then people don’t come back.” These kids have the sizzle and the steak.
I was blown away by the thought these young adults had put into their products. The team pitching Stripe Salsa was decked out in their finest Mizzou gear. Their product is a yellow corn and black bean salsa and their target audience is none other than Mizzou sports fans. The group representing Sunny Salsa was wearing cool sunglasses. Their salsa is made with cut up oranges, and their tagline, “the brightest dip at the party”, suits the citrus flavor and their demographic focus of college-age students. The Spitfire Salsa team tried lots of recipes and tested them on family members to come up with a “sweet and spicy” chunky – but not too chunky – salsa. It is sweet out of the gates with a habanero kick that sneaks up on you.
During their presentations there was the stage fright you expect from teenagers who lack public speaking experience. However, each group was surprisingly supportive of each other – encouraging their teammates through awkward transitions, stuttering, and lost thoughts. Their behavior pushed aside any stereotypes I had about “the selfish teenager”. Camp was only three weeks in and these complete strangers had come together in small groups, worked through their egos, to come up with some great ideas.
When asked about their largest hurdle, the response was overwhelmingly some version of “Agreeing on what type of salsa to make” or “Agreeing on our brand”. Each group explained how they identified the strengths of their members and divided up duties to leverage those strengths. Students from each team told me that compromise helped their group come up with good solutions. They had to give up their own ideas for a different and better idea. This was powerful stuff coming from a group of high schoolers.
Back when Camp Salsa was just a wild idea, we thought it would be good exposure for the students, showing them that Columbia is full of possibilities as an entrepreneur, a gardener, or a chef. Now it is clear that this program goes way beyond that, these kids were developing their problem-solving skills and learning patience, gardening skills and learning about seasonal fruits and veggies. Hearing the students talk about profit per pint, the importance of local food, and teamwork put a smile on my face, it makes me glad that we decided take a walk on the wild side.
Camp Salsa is an eight-week program for high school students who get experience growing food at the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture’s Urban Farm, learning about business development from local entrepreneurs, and starting their own microenterprise. Students get course credit through Columbia Public Schools and are paid a wage through the City’s CARE program.