Clarke Central High School student Kayleigh Sims wants to be a veterinarian and open her own practice. A University of Georgia program is helping her learn the leadership, entrepreneurship and problem-solving skills she will need to be a success.

Sims, a rising junior, is one of 21 high school students from the Clarke County School District to participate in UGA’s inaugural InnovateU program. The UGA Office of the President developed InnovateU to empower youth to solve real business challenges through leadership and innovative problem solving, with the help of peers and local business professionals.

“InnovateU provided me with insights on how to pursue my future goals,” Sims said. “It was cool to meet local business owners and learn from them. It has opened my eyes to knowing that I want to open my own practice.”

The program, which met for two full days a week for four weeks in June, paired students with professional and UGA student mentors to address one of two food-related challenges: Increasing access to healthy food for people who have limited access to fresh food at affordable prices or increasing farm-to-table access for local farmers.

Faculty with the UGA Entrepreneurship Program, located within the Terry College of Business, led the students through a design thinking process that helped them develop innovative solutions through a client-centered process focused on the needs of the people they were trying to help.

Meanwhile, faculty from the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, a unit of UGA Public Service and Outreach, helped the students develop skills they would need to work effectively within a team: collaboration, communication and conflict resolution.

The ideas included a healthy meal kit program that could be delivered through the school system, an app that would connect restaurants to local farmers, an app that would source local produce directly to families in a community, a program that would deliver boxes of healthy food directly to people’s homes, food boxes personalized for individuals to help promote healthy eating, and a program to create aquaponics gardens at schools to produce food that could be sent directly home with the students for their families.

The program was a great learning opportunity, said Antonio Starks, a rising junior at Clarke Central High School.

“I’ve never been to a program like this before that’s allowed me a chance to cultivate my creativity in this way,” Starks said. “I’ve gained confidence and it’s been a great program to be a part of.”

A local industry mentor was assigned to each student team to provide input and feedback. InnovateU mentors included Eve Anthony, Athens Community Council on Aging; Peter Dale, The National, Maepole, and Condor Chocolates; Darrell Goodman, UGA Center for Continuing Education & Hotel; Lemuel “Life” LaRoche, Chess and Community; Rashe Malcom, Rashe’s Cuisine; and Katie Walker, Georgia Power.

“This program is top notch and it’s necessary,” LaRoche said. “Learning these critical-thinking skills at this age is crucial because it allows young people to look at challenges with fresh eyes and learn to think about how to best solve them with the support of a diverse group of community leaders. We’re glad to be a part of the program.”

Along with the industry mentors, each team had a UGA student mentor working with them throughout the program.

“It was very rewarding for me to take what I’ve learned at UGA, work with the students and see them apply it,” said Sabrina Greco, a fourth-year psychology and French major who is in the UGA Entrepreneurship Certificate program. “They really came together and leaned into the process.”

Besides working on their projects, students in InnovateU also had an opportunity to hear more about entrepreneurship from Athens-Clarke County business owners and learn about the UGA Innovation District.

“Getting to meet and listen to local business owners made me feel like I can do it too,” said Alexis Wright, a rising freshman at Cedar Shoals High School. “I also learned a lot that will help me in high school, things like working with others and presenting in front of other people.”

The students presented their ideas for successfully resolving the challenges at an evening event July 1 at the Georgia Museum of Art, in front of an audience that included UGA President Jere W. Morehead, who thanked them for their engagement in the program, as well as their hard work and leadership.

“I am here tonight to express how proud the University of Georgia is with your accomplishments, how excited we are with what you have been able to do, and most importantly, how much we are looking forward to what you are going to do in the future,” Morehead said.

Other InnovateU sponsors included AT&T and Georgia Power. Plans are underway for the second InnovateU program in 2022.

Writer: Charlie Bauder;; 706-542-7039