Meet the “savvy” high-schoolers who created a booming e-commerce platform during COVID-19

e-commerce students
“There are too many possibilities.” Smart Company speaks to some of our impressive Year 9 students about the TC Envision program. The TC Envision program focuses on reframing the idea of failure as it embraces entrepreneurship skills.

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Envision Marketplace

ENVISION MARKETPLACE CO-FOUNDERS KATE HENRY, AUDREY HILLARD AND MEG HARRISON. SOURCE: SUPPLIED.

This has not been an easy year to launch a new business. But, three high school students from Strathcona Girls Grammar have done just that. And, after a successful soft launch, they’re preparing for growth.

Pre-COVID-19, aspiring entrepreneurs Audrey Hillard, Kate Henry and Meg Harrison were taking part in the school’s TC Envision program, which teaches entrepreneurship skills and sees students setting up their own businesses.

The teens are also connected to mentors via women’s business network The League of Extraordinary Women, including the likes of Outland Denim co-founder Erica Bartle, Cristina Re of Cristina Re Designs, and Olivia Carr, the founder of Shhh Silk.

As COVID-19 hit, it became clear the students wouldn’t be able to showcase their businesses at the usual annual marketplace event. So, Hillard, Henry and Harrison set out to take it online.

“Because of COVID, we obviously couldn’t do the big school markets that we normally do for this program in year nine,” Harrison tells SmartCompany.

“So we had to think of an alternative to keep it going.”

 The trio created the Envision Marketplace, where other students could set up shops and sell their products online, for a percentage commission.

“We’re a small online store,” Harrison explains.

“Each of the individual businesses in our year level are able to sign up and have a smaller store inside our bigger parent site.”

As part of the school’s tech club, the three co-founders were learning about websites at the time anyway, she says.

So, they put their new knowledge to work.

“It was a great opportunity,” Harrison says.

The marketplace launched on August 28, accessible to family and friends via the Strathcona school network.

Since then, it’s processed more than $7,000 in sales, something Karyn Murray, head of the program at the school, says is “pretty incredible” for a student business.

“We didn’t think it would make as much money so quickly,” Murray says.

“There’s no way they would have done that with a face-to-face market.”

During Melbourne’s strict COVID-19 lockdown, Murray expected the school community to rally around the student businesses.

They’re producing decent quality products, she says. Through the marketplace, consumers can purchase anything from cookies and cakes to candles, greeting cards, bath salts and even dog biscuits.

But, the team behind Envision Marketplace picked up on a way tech could be used to support their peers’ enterprises, and make them easily accessible to would-be consumers.

“They’ve done all the competitor analysis, they’ve found the gap in the market, and people’s pain-points,” Murray says.

“They’re quite savvy.”

Now, the founders have growth on their minds. Next term, they will open up the Envision Marketplace to the public, outside of the school network.

And, they’re already working on expanding to create customisable marketplaces for other young entrepreneurs.

“The plan is to have it offered to lots of young entrepreneurs outside of Strathcona and hopefully make it an easy way and a cheap way to expand their business and offer it to people they normally wouldn’t reach,” Harrison says.

“It’s far exceeded our expectations.”

KARYN MURRAY, HEAD OF THE TC ENVISION PROGRAM AT STRATHCONA GIRLS GRAMMAR. SOURCE: SUPPLIED.

Authentic learning

Strathcona’s TC Envision program is intended to give students a chance to upskill in perhaps less academic activities before they start studying for their VCEs.

The idea is to try to set them up with transferable skills that will serve them, not only in the rest of their schooling, but in their future careers too, Murray says.

That includes building enterprise and entrepreneurial skills.

“Students get to look at themselves, their attributes and characteristics, what they can add value to within a team … how they can be entrepreneurs and also intrapreneurs.”

The program takes up the entire year, Murray adds, with one term dedicated to the students building and launching their own businesses.

The program gives these girls a taste of entrepreneurialism, and makes it clear this could be a viable career route for them to take.

And they’re embracing it, Murray says. Some even enter the year with a business already up and running.

“Some come with that entrepreneurial mindset,” Murray says.

“Others come looking for a year of authentic learning — they’re wanting to really delve into something beyond subject-specific information.”

Staring failure in the face

Murray stresses that this program isn’t about making money — even if the students have cashed in this year.

“We do emphasise it’s really the learning journey,” she says.

The program focuses on reframing the idea of failure, she explains.

“Entrepreneurs don’t look at failure as something negative,” she says.

“It’s looked at as a chance to take risks and try things out and then pivot.”

Murray wants to instil a ‘pivot, punt, persevere’ mindset, helping the girls understand that even if the business flops, they haven’t failed personally.

“They’ve taken a risk, had an idea, and still learnt skills along the way.”

For this particular cohort of 2020, the resilience piece has been even more pertinent.

It’s been a difficult year for school kids in Melbourne, who are learning remotely and separated from their friends.

But, Murray says the Envision program has almost given them something to focus on that isn’t the pandemic. In fact, many of them have started working on their businesses outside of school hours.

“There’s not a lot to discuss at the moment that’s optimistic and positive,” Murray says.

“There’s not a lot to give you that sense of hope, whereas these businesses have.”

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve heard a lot about how crisis and adversity breed innovation. It’s during times of crisis that the next generation’s influential tech companies arise.

That applies to the girls going through Strathcona’s Envision program too.

“They’re having to solve unique problems that they’ve never had to solve before,” Murray explains.

“But, with those pains do come innovations, and do come interesting ways of solving problems,” she adds.

“For young people, they have so many technologies at their fingertips … they’re not afraid to give things a go.”

Ultimately, Murray sees this as something fun and productive for teenagers to do, giving them a sense of purpose and optimism at what’s a difficult time for everyone. That’s good for their education and, frankly, good for their health.

“They don’t mind whether they make money or not … we’re just seeing that in terms of their wellbeing, their mental health, their resilience, their wanting to connect — this has really helped to solve that problem.”

ENVISION MARKETPLACE CO-FOUNDERS MEG HARRISON, KATE HENRY AND AUDREY HILLARD AT A COVIDSAFE PHOTOSHOOT. SOURCE: SUPPLIED.

“Too many possibilities”

As for Meg Harrison, having had a taste of success at such a young age, she says pursuing entrepreneurship as a career is something she is seriously considering.

“Envision has made it very clear the steps we could take,” she says.

“It’s definitely an exciting thing I would consider, and I think a lot of my friends would consider in the future now too.”

But, when asked if she feels she’s found her niche in the e-commerce space, she doesn’t want to be boxed into any one sector just yet. There are plenty more opportunities around, she says.

“I’ve got a lot of other interests, too,” she says.

“There are too many possibilities.”