Jade Nettrour is a senior in high school and has already designed an early prototype of new Christmas tree lights to make the annual decorating process easier — and more cat-friendly — for her family and their five felines. Nettrour’s demonstration earned her second place in a student “Shark Tank” pitch competition in 2020, and she’s now exploring patent options.

Zuali Bochung, a junior at the University of Iowa, is studying neuroscience but has a dream to open her own supermarket and family-friendly cafe in the future, similar to popular businesses in her home country of Burma. As a UI student, she’s finishing her certificate in entrepreneurship from the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurship Center.

Riziki Mwirotsi is also a high school senior, and while she doesn’t have a particular business to develop now, she already knows being around and involved with other entrepreneurs is a growing passion.

“We live in a capitalist society,” Mwirotsi said. “Learning about this at a young age is super important, and I think everybody should go try it out.”

Together, the three young women are helping local entrepreneur (and Riziki’s mother) Nancy Mwirotsi market and recruit participants for the Girls Entrepreneurship Summit, a six-Saturday event with courses designed to introduce 15 girls in grades nine through 12 to the basics of entrepreneurship.

The first class is on Saturday this week; registration is still open online until noon Friday.

Nancy Mwirotsi, who founded the STEM education nonprofit Pi515 just a few years ago, said she wants the event to encourage curiosity and interest in younger women.

“I want girls to build younger than [age] 40,” Nancy Mwirotsi said. “I want young people to build sooner than later, and especially young girls — to teach them courage that they could pursue this. If it fails today, that’s just fine. You can start again.”  

The summit is in partnership with the John Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship at University of Iowa, and classes will be led by JPEC instructors, Techstars Iowa director Kerty Levy and local entrepreneur and graphic designer Sarah Oyibo. The seminar will end with a pitch competition judged by JPEC staff, who will award $5,000 to the winning student.

Each registered student will also have the state registration fee of their first business covered by the Girls Entrepreneurship Summit, Mwirotsi added. Each summit course will take place virtually for two hours on Saturdays from Feb. 20 to March 27, and introduce participants to basic entrepreneurship practices including building a business model and basic marketing.

Attracting students to join the pilot program was a learning process for Rizki Mwirotsi, Bochung and Nettrour. While attempting to advertise through Snapchat, Nettrour had two male classmates reach out, but girls weren’t engaging as quickly.

“It’s hard to get them to engage with it and see the potential,” Nettrour said.

Yet, Nancy Mwirotsi said, most of the participants are already operating small-scale businesses.

“When we talked to the first class, we asked, ‘Who has a business?’ Everyone said no. Then I asked, ‘Who is babysitting, who is dogsitting, do you get paid for it? Isn’t that a business?’” she said.

Mwirotsi received a $10,000 Nation of Neighbors grant from Royal Neighbors of America in October 2020 to develop the girls’ education summit. Soon after, Mwirotsi and Iowa entrepreneur John Pappajohn announced Pappajohn’s commitment of $100,000 to the STEM education nonprofit Pi515, founded by Mwirotsi.

To potential students, Bochung, Nettrour and Riziki Mwirotsi advise that they try something new through the program.

“Even if you don’t end up finding your passion right in this moment, what you’re going to learn is going to be useful as you go on through life,” Bochung said.