Choffin Inspires ‘Underdog’ Entrepreneurs

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Seeing the lack of opportunities her family faced while she was growing up, Billi’e Craige decided she wanted to make a change and help local minorities reach their potential.

Craige, a graduating senior at East High School in Youngstown, came up with her brand, Underdog University, as a part of her project at Choffin Career & Technical Center. The school finished the academic year with a “Shark Tank”-style event for students in its business entrepreneurship program.
“In Underdog University, the idea is to inspire young minds and teach them about finance and lifestyle in order to create more businesses for other people and help out,” Craige says.

Her idea for a brand developed considerably over the past 1½ years. What began as an idea for a small clothing brand developed into an educational podcast recorded in the Choffin music studio.

“The name – Underdog University – actually came from a song by 50 Cent that I really love and one of my favorite songs as a child,” Craige says. “The ‘underdog’ also came from a commercial I saw [that] was saying the people who work the hardest and that you would think are going to make it successfully – sometimes they come out on top.”

Craige sees minorities as underdogs, she says. Her podcast – teaching lessons about self-care, finance and other essential skills – is meant to help those people reach their potential.

“I made a decision not to go to a traditional college, how everyone would assume for me to do,” she says. “So for me, it is a different decision for myself than going to traditional college, to make my own university and help people in everyday life.”

Clothing – although it is no longer her primary focus – still plays an essential role in the brand, Craige says. The clothing line, she says, will feature a variety of professionally focused items like blazers, suits and jewelry, in unusual colors, and incorporate those ideas into new trends.

“I feel like a lot of time we lack, especially here in Youngstown, professional clothing,” Craige says. “We have JCPenney and Macy’s but we don’t have a lot of outside brands to go to. I want to create that professional style as well as mixing in some personality.”

Erra’Ci Hines, a senior at Chaney High School, also used this class as an opportunity to meet the needs of those in her community. Her brand idea, “Smile,” features both a clothing line and a “barber shop on wheels.”

“I want to be mobile,” she says. “I think that is the biggest thing in Youngstown. People don’t want to get on the bus. But a lot of people don’t drive. I think that would be a good thing to give back to the community.”

Hines says her idea is for all ages. With mobile abilities, she says she could go to places such as nursing homes where it’s hard for residents to leave or to attend events for school children who may need services before returning to school.

Carissa Benchwick is the entrepreneurship instructor at Choffin. She says her two-year-old program has 18 students.

“Throughout the year, students learn the curriculum from beginning to end,” Benchwick says. “We have been covering all of the bases in the segments. There are nine segments in their business plan, which is a lean canvas. They have been learning since September until May.”

Benchwick says the course work stems from the Network of Teaching and Entrepreneurship curriculum.
“Their junior year is primarily their idea for the event,” she says. “The goal is that when they return their senior year for business, they continue to actually start their business.”

Choffin has much to offer students learning entrepreneurship, Benchwick says.

“Once you spark a little change in their mind, they start to think about things differently,” she says. “I have a couple of junior students that are actually making product for a separate business idea they have and they have been selling it to me. So I have noticed some change throughout the year. They are starting to see opportunity and take advantage of it.”

In addition to business instruction, senior students were paired with Michael Pontikos, owner of Sokitnop Design and senior lecturer in the management-marketing department at Youngstown State University. He acted as the creative director for student logos in the “Shark Tank” project.

Businessman Michael Pontikos worked with class teacher Carissa Benchwick.

Pontikos has been in the branding, design, advertising and marketing field for approximately 25 years. Benchwick got him involved to help students create logos after seeing his work for area businesses such as Burgan Real Estate and Penguin City Beer.

“Hearing these kids’ stories and what they wanted to do,” Pontikos says, “I felt that they needed a professionally designed logo.”

Pontikos says working with students was an experience that also taught him lessons.

“I teach a creative strategies class and I go through this whole process of what goes into developing a brand, or a look and feel, and what that is,” he says. “I was able to bring that into this classroom and explain to the students it’s not just a logo. Your personality is going to be a part of that.”

Students came up with their own ideas, which Pontikos helped to piece together. They were not treated like high school students, he says, but rather like clients.

Pontikos says this was his way to take his expertise and “pay it forward.

“This experience has been great,” he says. “It helped me become a better designer and better consultant for companies. I got thrown some questions and I was like, ‘Wow, I never thought of that before.’”

The students say they have enjoyed their experience in the classroom and preparing for the event. The support they received was one thing that particularly stood out to Hines, both from Pontikos’ effort working with them to create free professional logos and from Benchwick’s teaching.

“I know I don’t tell my teacher enough. But I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Miss Benchwick,” she says. “I really appreciate her support and her confidence. Even if one day I don’t know what to do, she is willing to pick up and help me.”

Pictured at top: Billi’e Craige says her brand reflects her business mission to aid minorities.