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Youth tech “shark tank” program expands to Tampa Bay

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High school students in Tampa Bay are getting the chance to develop their own tech product ideas into marketable products, with help from expert mentors and area business leaders. Next Gen Tech 360 bridges the skills gap between education and the realities of the business environment by coaching student teams through the creation of a business solution that is their idea. The program’s sixth year starts in October, and is expanding to the entire Tampa Bay area.

Next Gen Tech 360 is the brain child of Robyn Mussler, herself a leader in the Tampa Bay tech world. Her inspiration came from her own experience in hiring employees, where she first hand saw the trend of recruits becoming more programming and developer-focused with less real-world understanding of the entire technology business development lifecycle. Mussler created a non-profit, Connect IT 360, to address this growing skills and opportunity gap in today’s business world.

Mussler and her Connect IT 360 advisors have crafted the Next Gen Tech 360 program specifically for Tampa Bay’s high school students. The after-school program trains students how to work in a team, demonstrates what makes a product useful and marketable, and gets them comfortable with changing direction (“pivoting”) in a rapid production environment. With the guidance of local technology industry leaders, the program is completely student-driven; experts host interactive workshops and mentors act as coaches who help student teams reach industry benchmarks required for product prototypes.

At the conclusion of the seven-month program, teams “pitch” their product to a panel who represent some big names in business. Panel judges award three winners, for prize money and a chance to get one-on-one mentorship from one of the judges.

Kevin Harrington, one of the original “sharks” from the television show “Shark Tank,” is a Next Gen Tech 360 judge, as well as vocal proponent of mentoring. He explains that the program trains the next generation of business leaders and tech stars by getting the help of local tech business leaders. Together, teams build what Harrington says are what’s needed in today’s economy: “solid, impactful and marketable solutions.” “Next Gen Tech 360 nails this,” he says. “…fostering young talent, stretched beyond their capabilities.” Harrington believes so much in the program, and the power of mentoring – he wrote a best-selling book about it – that he offers winning teams a one-on-one mentoring session.

Alumni of Next Gen Tech 360 go on to some impressive achievements: highly-competitive programs, sought-after internships, and Ivy League colleges. Many credit the Next Gen Tech program for not only creating these opportunities but giving them skills they will use in any area of business, not just technology.

“NGT has given me so many tools to apply into the next chapter of my life,” says Kiran Ganga, member of last year’s winning team that created a mobile application called ClimaTrek that uses Bluetooth technology to monitor atmospheric conditions. “As an aspiring entrepreneur, I now know what it takes to develop a product and market it. Most importantly, it’s encouraged me to become an innovator and identify unique solutions to today’s issues.” Ganga and her teammates from Palm Harbor University raved about their experience. Mateuse Plaza said Next Gen Tech 360 is unlike any other pitch or student competition. “It’s really not about who wins – it’s about the process,” he says. “We came in with a half-baked idea, and in several months we’ve changed that into a real product for a real market.”

“NGT opened up so many doors for me!” says Cassandra Bernard, who acted as Project Manager on a team that created an augmented reality safety app called Prepare Now. “I was able to obtain an internship at Tulli (local tech startup) and work alongside qualified app developers, marketers and business developers to get real-life experience in my field of interest.”

Matthew Werneken, 2019 winning team member and freshman at Columbia University, calls Next Gen Tech 360 “life changing.” He says that as a result of the program he has earned numerous scholarships, mentorships, and other competition opportunities, and was able to secure a position on the President’s Council for Future Business Leaders of America.

Students come out of the Next Gen Tech 360 program with expertise that is non-existent in most high schools, yet is critical for successful product development in nearly any business climate. Product management, business analysis, programming, user-interface, architecture, cybersecurity, marketing, and project management are just some of the skills and experience participants can apply to future careers. Beyond these hard skills, the ability to network with industry professionals can open doors to internships and other opportunities.

Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program. Mentors, who are volunteers typically from local technology businesses, rave about their experience. Kishen Sridaharan is a cybersecurity executive at Raymond James calls the Next Generation Tech program “worth its weight in gold.” He credits the student-driven format for creating experienced future employees for companies like his. “I like that,” he says, “and we like that at Raymond James – that is why we are heavy in terms of our partnership with NGT.” Other corporate sponsors, who provide mentors, workshop speakers, and financial support, include Achieva, Nielsen, Given, TechData, Catalina Charitable Foundation, Tampa Bay Tech, and Florida Funders, to name a few.

This year Next Gen Tech 360 is moving to a micro-learning digital platform, a shift that started toward the end of last year’s program. Mussler says this shift is one hundred percent positive. “We’ve had to pivot to a digital platform, just like most other companies this year,” she says. “For us, this has been terrific – not only can we accommodate all the students who want to participate, but we can do more in less time and improve team communication.” She says that the new digital module tracks team progress, marks milestones, and even facilitates career planning and goal setting. “You won’t find something else like this anywhere in the area.”

Mentors interested in the program should contact info@connectit360.org to get invited to an information session. Mentorship only requires four hours a month for workshops and team activities, and lasts from October until May.

High school students interested in the program should assemble a team of three to five students with a tech idea, and attend an information session to find out the application process. The seven-month program requires four hours a month in interactive workshops with topics ranging from Customer-Centric User Experience Training to Architecting for Contingencies, all with the ultimate goal of helping teams flesh out ideas and roles to create workable product pitches. Finalist teams pitch their concept to a panel of judges in hopes to win a money prize and one-on-one mentoring with a tech business leader.

Next Gen Tech 360 is executed by Clearwater-based nonprofit Connect IT 360, whose mission it is to bridge the gap between youth and the business world, by teaching essential building blocks for success in technology, business, and life. The organization relies heavily on area business to provide financial and volunteer support.

Watch videos from last year’s finals, hear more student and mentor testimonials and make a donation at www.connectit360.org. For more information contact Robyn Mussler, Director, at info@connectit360.org.

Media Contact:
Robyn Mussler
robyn@connectit360.org
727-410-7530

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