By Miles H. Barber

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Today, the Rotary Club of Santa Clara launches their 2015 Enterprise Leadership Conference (ELC) hosting 60 high school juniors. They are joined by the Rotary Clubs of Mt. View and Milpitas.

Thirty young men and thirty young women who are high school juniors have been selected to participate. Each member is assigned to a team of six students from different high schools. These 10 teams are challenged with the task of creating a new product or service that hasn’t been offered before.

Once they have identified their idea, they must build a business plan around that idea that includes the product or service, projected sales for the first three years, how it will be sold and marketed and what kind of profits will be generated.

The conference is held over a three day period which includes many guest presenters from Silicon Valley companies. On the final day, the teams must present their idea and defend it before a panel of “shark tank” judges who own or have owned their own businesses.

The process of this total exercise has its own innate challenges, as the team members have not met before the conference begins. Over the course of the first day the team leader is identified and becomes the President and CEO. This is followed by selecting Vice Presidents of sales, marketing, finance and human resources.

ELC is a condensed crash course on introducing the opportunities available to young people in starting or owning a business. While public education focuses on science, technology, engineering and math, it misses the underlying fabric of America’s small business. Sixty-six percent of new jobs in America are created by companies with less than 500 employees and employ 55 percent of all workers.

There are currently 23 million small business companies operating in the U.S. with more being added daily.

As one graduate of ELC expressed last year, “I learned more about business in three days at ELC than I have learned in three years at high school.”

Another graduate from 2014 took a summer internship at a pharmaceutical company and observing the need for a new product, invented a balloon device for opening and entering the ear. The student received a patent on it and it is now being distributed throughout the medical world.

Other graduates have decided that business is as exciting as any career available and have chosen to make business their degree path in college.

Rotary provides full scholarships for each of the 60 students to ELC and all costs of the conference are raised by the club. Primary grants for the ELC project have come from Kaiser Permanente, the San Francisco 49ers Foundation, Blach Construction, Silicon Valley Power and many small businesses in Santa Clara.

While the ELC Conference is held each year in March, recruitment for student applications begins at local high schools in November and closes on December 15th. Students are notified in January of their acceptance.

Originally started in the Bay Area by the Oakland Rotary Club, ELC began to grow legs and expanded through San Jose Rotary and then throughout Silicon Valley with now more than a dozen local Rotary clubs participating. This year the combined efforts of these clubs will graduate more than 220 high school juniors from the ELC program.

Congratulations to Santa Clara Rotary on making Santa Clara a better community.