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Treasure Valley teen entrepreneurs turn project into profit

School project leads to successful cell phone cover business

Young Boise entrepreneurs Helen Wang, 15, and Grace Zhu, 14, started a business creating custom iPhone cases for a school project at Treasure Valley Math and Science Center. They have kept the idea alive and have been successful since beginning th
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Young Boise entrepreneurs Helen Wang, 15, and Grace Zhu, 14, started a business creating custom iPhone cases for a school project at Treasure Valley Math and Science Center. They have kept the idea alive and have been successful since beginning th

When ninth-graders Helen Wang and Grace Zhu started their school project, they had no idea they would turn a $40 investment into $1,000.

Their endeavor, designing and selling iPhone cases online, was the result of Treasure Valley Math and Science Center’s 20% Project, modeled after Google’s company policy that encourages employees to spend 20 percent of their time focused on projects they love and think will have the most benefit to their company.

The math and science center is the latest charter school in the Boise area to adopt this model, urging teachers to devote 20 percent of their research classes to the project.

“The idea is that students are given 20 percent of class time to pursue their passions, their ideas, or learn something new through a year-long project,” said Julie Ekhoff, research teacher at the school. “When someone is interested in a topic, they are self-driven to learn and explore more about it.”

Helen and Grace have been friends since third grade. They wanted to design something they could share with the community, while learning business and advertising skills. At first they considered making jewelry, terrariums and stationery but then settled on the idea of creating custom iPhone cases and opening their own e-commerce website.

Each of them started with $20 from their parents to purchase blank cases in bulk, paint pens and a few other supplies they needed. Then they created their first designs — the Cactus and Crystal Collections — and advertised them on their personal Instagram accounts.

The idea quickly became more of a success than they had anticipated; instead of their initial goal of earning $80 (double their investment), they earned about $250 and launched their own website.

Helen and Grace believe in putting time and effort into every case by hand-drawing them, instead of mass-printing a design. They hope that customers feel they are getting something unique and well-made.

Within six months, they had made close to $1,000 and have a growing collection of more than 50 unique designs available at thecloudstopcases.com.

The girls never expected to grow their fledgling business so quickly.

“We started out with a goal of just gaining $80 because we weren’t sure if that many people would enjoy it, but they actually did!” Helen and Grace said by email. “Because our friends enjoyed it at first and helped support us (by buying cases), we were able to invest in website-making and promotions. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be as far as we are now. It’s also amazing to think about how someone in New York could be walking around holding one of our hand-drawn cases!”

This was the pilot year for their Boise charter school to implement the 20% Project as a formal part of its curriculum. The projects required students to conduct research in an area that is of particular interest to them and create something new from that research.

According to the school’s guidelines, “It should be an area that you are curious about but never seem to have enough time to fully explore, or it can be an area that you are already passionate about and you will research possibilities for sharing this passion with others.”

Students were also asked to focus on making a difference — whether large or small — in the life of at least one person the project will impact. At the school’s Night of Sharing, where all the projects were presented, friends and family saw an impressive and varied array of ideas. Some students raised money by learning how to make traditional family meals, selling the meals and then donating the funds to benefit a local hospital. Others sewed children’s dresses to send overseas, ran food drives and fundraised to support those in need in Nepal and in western African nations. Some sold food items they made, or combined photography and music-writing and then cut a CD as a fundraiser to support Boise Rock School.

“Students learned to bake bread, to write a fictional novel, to paint, to engineer, to grow plants ... to pursue curiosities and passions in the midst of their very busy lives!” says school Principal Holly Maclean. “On the night when we displayed the outcomes of our students’ efforts, it was beyond impressive. The varied and significant difference that these young men and women made in their world, by using 20 percent of their time to research and implement a plan for good, was both overwhelming and humbling! I came away from this experience hopeful for the difference that I know these young men and women will make in their world. They understand what it is to make a difference and they are also aware of their power to do work for the greater good.”

The math and science center plans to expand the 20% Project throughout the school in the coming years, including the possibility of incorporating upper-level students’ projects in internship placements.

When Grace and Helen presented their final results and iPhone covers at the first 20% Project Night of Sharing this spring, along with fellow classmates in the seventh and ninth grades, the response was overwhelmingly positive and sales soared.

The girls definitely have big plans moving forward.

“We want to keep expanding our shop into the future, when we can make enough money to donate to others, and also for ourselves. Watch out for us!” they said.

Want to buy an iPhone case?

Find a design or commission Helen Wang and Grace Zhu to create one just for you at thecloudstopcases.com.

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