For these R.I. students, business boot camp a chance to make pitch perfect (Providence Journal)

By Linda Borg 
Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — Imagine having to sell yourself in three minutes. It’s called an elevator pitch and it’s an exercise perfected by most business school students, marketers and salespeople.

On Friday, a dozen junior high school students squeezed into an overheated classroom at Rhode Island College and prepared to be critiqued.

They are part of a larger cohort of 150 juniors from Newport to North Providence who competed for summer jobs with some of Rhode Island’s best-known companies — CVS, Hasbro, Gilbane, Citizens Bank and others. During the past week, the students, who were selected from an applicant pool of 620 teenagers, participated in a boot camp where they learned business skills, among them, public speaking, problem-solving, effective communication and so on.

The program is sponsored by PrepareRI and offers juniors paid six- to eight-week internships.

The camp culminated with Friday’s elevator pitch, an opportunity for teenagers to describe their strengths, which they had previously identified by taking a 170-question survey.

Janessa Diaz, a junior at Rogers High School in Newport, said she was surprised to learn that what she thought were her weaknesses — strong communications skills, empathy — were actually her strengths.

Nina Pande, executive director of Skills for Rhode Island’s Future, the group that organized the summer internship program, and Kiara Butler, CEO of Diversity Talks, provided constructive feedback.

“I know you know this material,” Pande said to Diaz, who was nervous. “Own it.”

“There were moments when you were looking for words,” Butler added. “Tell me a story.”

Daniela Acarapi of North Providence, a recent arrival from Bolivia, did just that.

When a family couldn’t pull together enough money for their daughter’s hip surgery, Acarapi and a friend began fundraising. Although they fell short of their goal, she said the challenge was a lesson in setting goals.

She also described a less successful effort to master English, where she had to swallow her pride and ask for help. After her speech, Butler said, “I liked your level of vulnerability.”

“But I was distracted by the slides,” said Pande, who then encouraged Acarapi to use her bilingualism as an asset.

Jenny King of Lincoln High School said she was disappointed that so many of her strengths fell within one category, the softer skills. None were in strategic thinking. Armed with this knowledge, she is now considering a career in communications. Butler urged her to use the full five minutes allotted for her pitch, while Pande said she left some important information on the table.

After the pitches were over, several students shared their biggest takeaway from boot camp. They all agreed that the sessions devoted to discovering their strengths were the most helpful.

Cameron Borges, who plans to become a software developer, said he felt honored to be here, calling the opportunity “a blessing for me.”

“I love to succeed,” the Newport teenager said. “Finding out that that was my biggest talent was the most wonderful experience.”

Ethan Savoie, of North Smithfield, said the boot camp pushed him out of his middle-class comfort zone.

“I was sitting alone and a few girls of color wanted to know if I’d sit with them,” he said. “We talked about how they live. There were differences but there were also similarities in our lives.”

David Cournoyer wants to be a flight nurse. During boot camp, he had a chance to speak with two top executives from CVS, who told him that the company offers nursing scholarships. That conversation and the whole concept of networking was a revelation.

“I’m going to try and get one of those.”

The program, in its first year, is funded by the Governor’s Workforce Board and New Skills for Youth.