Learning the entrepreneurial mindset

High school student hopes to help kids with a new app

A woman holds a giant check made out for $2,000 from the UM-Flint School of Management. Three men join her on the stage. One holds a glass trophy and one stands behind a podium.
Kailey Hill won first place at University of Michigan-Flint’s Zillion Solutions idea pitch competition on April 6 with her Panc-Pals presentation. The next month, Hill went on to win second place at the Youth Entrepreneurship Club pitch competition against local high school students. Photo: Audrey Banks

When Kailey Hill’s older brother was 6 years old, he was diagnosed with type I diabetes. She was very young at the time but remembers how scary it was for everyone in the family.

While she was a senior at Bendle High School in Burton, Michigan, Hill wanted to create something to help kids like her brother. She developed the idea of Panc-Pals, an app that would help kids with diabetes understand what it is and how it affects their bodies. Through interacting with animated characters with diabetes, children could better understand what’s happening to them, Hill said.

“The ultimate goal of Panc-Pals is really to take some of the stress off of the parents and to help the child be able to learn about their condition in a fun, interactive way,” Hill said. “That first diagnosis is terrifying for both the parents and the kids. You can hand your child a tablet or a phone and say, ‘You have to take care of your dinosaur. You have to take care of your panda.’ It makes it seem less scary, but it also educates them at the same time.”

Hill showcased her idea at University of Michigan-Flint’s Zillion Solutions idea pitch competition in April and won first place against 10 UM-Flint college students.

“I was so nervous, and then I heard him call out Panc-Pals. I teared up. I saw my people jumping and cheering,” said Hill.

“Enthusiasm and passion are really the biggest things that will help you win and succeed in these [competitions],” Hill added, describing what she has learned from the process. “If you’re not passionate and you don’t truly care about what you’re doing, you’re not going to make it that far.”

Launched in 2017, Zillion Solutions is an annual idea competition created through UM-Flint’s School of Management and its Hagerman Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to increase student interest in entrepreneurship, innovation and/or problem-solving.

A screenshot of an app shows an illustration of a dinosaur with a smiling emoji in a speech bubble and the text "I feel good! Check back later!"
With Panc-Pals, kids would see an animated animal of their choice talking through how they are feeling. Illustration: Kailey Hill

Last year, Zillion Solutions expanded with a division for high school students who are also dual enrolled at UM-Flint, but this is the first year the program partnered with the Genesee Youth Entrepreneurship Network to invite local high school students to participate. The 2021/2022 pitch competition had a total of 520 submissions, including 40 from high school students in entrepreneurship clubs and 44 who were dual enrolled.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation supports the growing entrepreneurship ecosystem in Flint and Genesee County, which comprises a variety of organizations and partners seeking to support innovators of all ages and in all stages of the process.

Since 2020, Mott has granted over $150,000 to UM-Flint to support Zillion Solutions. The Foundation also supported the creation of the Genesee Youth Entrepreneurship Network in 2019 with a $525,000 grant to the Genesee Intermediate School District.

Mark Simon, director of the Hagerman Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, was excited to include high school students in this year’s pitch competition.

“The competition is a vehicle to show high schoolers, undergraduates and graduates, regardless of their area of study, that they can think of creative solutions,” Simon said. “We know that, with the help of the Mott Foundation, there are many wonderful programs for entrepreneurial high school students in Genesee County.

“It was important for us to show these entrepreneurial teens they could continue to pursue their passion for entrepreneurship in universities located in the county,” Simon added. “Entrepreneurship starts with the belief that you can overcome obstacles and succeed. Beliefs like this form at a young age and are carried through life. So, the earlier, the better!”

Endless possibilities

Hill is a member of Bendle’s Youth Entrepreneurship Club, which is one of 20 clubs in the Genesee Youth Entrepreneurship Network.

Niles McNiel, a government and economics teacher who serves as club advisor, said this was the school’s first year with the club, and Hill and other students really dove in.

“I love them thinking creatively,” McNiel said. “The sky’s the limit. I want them to know they can be their own boss if they want that. I’m really hoping the success Kailey had helps bring more students into our club next year.”

Kimberly Dehmel, youth entrepreneurship coordinator at GISD, said participating in these entrepreneurship clubs is teaching skills young people can use throughout their lives.

“The whole idea is to help students who have a business dream pursue it. We want them to understand that they can receive the resources and training they need to bring their idea to the next level,” Dehmel said. “Whether or not they create this business in the end, they at least learn a lot of the skillsets and personal traits that are so important — even for working for someone else.

“No matter what business they go into, whether for themselves or somebody else, they are learning how to collaborate with others, how to work within teams, how to market and how to work through failures, pitfalls, trials and setbacks.”

A young woman smiles for a photo standing in front of rows of blue and yellow bleachers in a school gymnasium.
Kailey Hill was a senior when she joined Bendle High School’s Youth Entrepreneurship Club, which she credits with helping her to strengthen her skills in public speaking, marketing and problem-solving. Photo: Cristina Wright

Hill’s story is a great example of the support people can receive through the coordinated entrepreneurial ecosystem in Flint.

Through her participation in Zillion Solutions and the Youth Entrepreneurship Club, Hill was also able to work with staff at 100K Ideas and the Hagerman Center to learn more about perfecting her pitch and moving forward with creating the app. Hill also was one of four students from the Genesee Youth Entrepreneurship Network chosen to attend this month’s Next Gen Summit in New York.

In the fall, she will attend Northwood University to study sports management. As for the Panc-Pals app, Hill doesn’t know what will happen next. If she’s able to acquire support, she would like to create a prototype in the next two years. After college, she hopes to be able to focus more of her attention on it again.

Regardless of what happens with Panc-Pals, Hills knows she learned a lot about innovation and a lot about herself by being part of the Youth Entrepreneurship Club and participating in Zillion Solutions. She encourages all young people to give it a try.

“The possibilities really are endless,” she said. “It’s something that really gets you thinking. You just have to try it. Everybody has a problem, and you could be the one to solve it. And it helps you develop as a person.”

Dehmel said that, if a student is interested in joining a Youth Entrepreneurship Club, but their school doesn’t have one, they can join the club at the Genesee Career Institute. For more information or to become a club coordinator, contact Dehmel at kdehmel@geneseeisd.org.