Takia Thomas and the rest of her Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest “company” at Minneapolis Edison High School prove you can take second place and still be a champion.

In fact, one member of the Edison High team, senior Brandon Arneson, was named the “Student Entrepreneur of the Year” and won a $1,000 college scholarship from the Otto Bremer Trust last month.

Thomas, Arneson and the other Edison JA team members invented Stress Less, a squeezable stress ball they manufacture from heavy-duty balloons stuffed with a goo of flour, rice, glue and starch. The team’s “stockholders,” made $8 for every $1 invested, thanks to $1,000-plus in sales of the $2 balls.

This investment and exercise was about more than money.

Stress Less also is tied to written-and-video materials about coping with stress.

Lee-Ann Granger of accounting firm CliftonLarsonAllen, and a mentor to the Edison team, said her colleagues were awed by the Edison product and presentation that led to hundreds of sales during a visit in May. The students also learned more about the accounting trade.

“The people who attended the event were amazed by what these dedicated students accomplished,” Granger said last week. “Inner-city schools don’t have the resources, the 3-D printers, like Hopkins or Mounds View. But they were creative and dedicated.”

Thomas, 18, a graduating Edison senior who will attend North Central University in Minneapolis, is preparing for her second summer of working at Reve Academy. It is an inner-city digital-marketing shop that’s also a school and intern-training ground for talented minority teens. Thomas will work as a supervisor of other interns, working websites and other digital-design projects.

“I just was awarded a ‘leadership’ scholarship from North Central,” she said last week.

“Through JA, I got the experience to run a business and market the product. It taught me about working with a team. You have to make those connections to be successful. It also influenced my decision to lean toward becoming a business major.

“I know Adobe Illustrator. One day, I hope to be the design person for my own business. I’m very grateful for this experience and my company taking second place in the regional competition.”

A Mounds View High School team took first place and will advance to the 15-team national competition on June 16 in Washington, D.C., on the strength of its “EcoSlurp” that provides a bubble tea straw alternative that biodegrades 250 times faster than a typical plastic straw.

“The straw is made of polypropylene with a resin that biodegrades in 18 to 24 months compared to plastic that biodegrades in 500 years,” said Matthew Nelson, 17, a Mounds View junior. “We source straws from a company in British Columbia. We sell directly to the consumer for 25 cents. The [wholesale] price for biodegradable straws is 6.5 to 15 cents, depending upon volume. Retailers pay about 1.5 cents for a cheap straw.”

Five of our nine team members are going to Washington. We believe we’re well prepared for our presentation at the state competition. We sold 2,500 straws for the Earth Day events. We’ve sold hundreds of others through retailers. We’ll continue the company next year …”

The regional finals competition featured another team from Mounds View High, as well as teams from Minneapolis Patrick Henry High and St. Paul Humboldt High.

The winning Mounds View EcoSlurp student team members each received a $1,000 postsecondary scholarship from Otto Bremer Trust, majority owner of Bremer Financial. The second-place Edison team, which tied with a Mounds View team that invented a writable laptop case, each received a $500 scholarship.

The Social Enterprise Award went to students from Humboldt for their antibullying business, Frown Less, Smile More.

The team donated profits from the sale of colorful T-shirts to support antibullying efforts. Each team member received a $250 postsecondary scholarship.

Designed for high school students, the JA Company Program provides students the opportunity to create a product or service, market it and work as a team to operate their company as part of a school-based organization or club. This is JA’s original program.

“JA Company Program allows students to fill a need or solve a problem in their community by launching a business venture,” said JA CEO Gina Blayney. “This immersive, experiential program takes students … and puts them in real-life situations, where they learn how to be leaders, work as a team and problem solve. These skills prepare today’s young people to be tomorrow’s business leaders.”

JA of the Upper Midwest recently moved into a refurbished building in St. Paul’s Midway.


Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com