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NEXUS Summer Program Students Dream Big in Teen Entrepreneurship Challenge

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Nicole Militello

Senior Media Relations Specialist

Nicole Militello

Philanthropist Robert Smith encourages budding entrepreneurs to use technology as a solution and “find joy in collaboration”

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From dreaming up a competitive gaming event to reimagining how to expand the historic Lincoln Hills resort, more than 50 Colorado high schoolers got the chance to put their creativity to the test by developing business plans at the Inaugural Teen Entrepreneurship Challenge. The University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education hosted the NEXUS Summer Program, which aims to set up college-bound teens with resources to thrive on campuses across the country.

“You’re an inspiration to us,” Karen Riley, dean of the Morgridge College, told the students at their final presentations. “You give us all hope for the future, because what you’re able to do is what’s going to change the world.”

Teen Entrepreneurship Challenge winners with Robert Smith
Inaugural Teen Entrepreneurship Challenge winners with Robert Smith

One business plan in particular caught the judges’ attention. It’s a vision to preserve the history of one of Denver’s oldest neighborhoods, Five Points, once called the “Harlem of the West.” Imagine this: “Mile High Harlem,” a multipurpose building with studio space for local businesses, a bodega, a museum and a top floor featuring a jazz lounge.

“We are trying to preserve the past while embracing the future,” Joshua Duran, a student on the “Mile High Harlem” team, said. “Five Points is an ever-growing area, and it is getting gentrified. We simply could not solve for that, so we decided to try to capitalize off of that. Overall, just embrace what Five Points is becoming.”

Duran, along with his teammates Anali Blue and Dylan Mendoza, earned first place after the finalists presented their ideas in front of a packed house at Ruffatto Hall on the DU campus. But one special guest in the audience took them by surprise: Denver native, philanthropist and businessman Robert Smith.

Philanthropist Robert Smith speaks to the NEXUS Summer Program students
Philanthropist Robert Smith speaks to the NEXUS Summer Program students

For Blue, Smith’s appearance pushed her business pitch to the next level. “Man, I was not expecting him to be out there; then I walk out and I see a familiar face,” she said. “Then I was like, OK … I have to make this great. It pushes me. I’m a person that doesn’t like to be comfortable, so those extra pushes of uncomfortable scenarios push me forward to be better.”

One of Smith’s philanthropic ventures, Lincoln Hills Cares, sponsors the NEXUS Summer Program, which was founded by Denver native Ric Ramsey. No stranger to the DU campus, Smith delivered the Commencement address in 2017 and received an honorary doctorate in business from DU. What’s more, his father is a DU alumnus. And he’s a believer in the power of education. Earlier this year, he stunned hundreds of Morehouse graduates when he announced he will pay off the student loans of the entire 2019 class. 

Smith left the Inaugural Teen Entrepreneurship Challenge students with some important advice.

“We were all born into different circumstances, but it’s your obligation to change that so it fits your narrative,” Smith said. “You are enough, and I hope you all embrace that thought that you are enough to change your condition, to be who you want to be to change your community the way you want it changed. These sorts of programs are the things that empower you with strength, tools and relationships that help you think about it.”

For students like Mendoza, this represented a fitting cap to several days of collaboration and innovation.

“My takeaway was just the amount of teamwork it can take and how well we all meshed together,” Mendoza said.   

The final presentations ended with a surprise step performance
The final presentations ended with a surprise step performance



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