KWHS Essay Contest Winner Julie Cheng: Functional Gloves and the Musings of a College Freshman

Julie Cheng is a freshman at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Cheng was a junior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md. when she submitted an essay to the Knowledge@Wharton High School essay contest and placed first in the 11th/12th grade entrepreneurship category. What was Cheng’s winning entry, which is currently featured on the KWHS site? A plan for her company Touch Innovations and its product, Skins, “the first gloves to make technological innovation compatible with cold weather.” When it comes to business, Cheng’s essay has it all: a detailed product description, sources of seed funding, a sound marketing strategy, set price range and the all-important target market – “tech-savvy, no-nonsense millennials who want functional gloves that they do not have to shed when typing on laptops or cell phones.” KWHS spoke with Cheng about her essay, entrepreneurship and campus exploration.

 

An edited version of the transcript appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton High School:  Hi, Julie. Thank you for joining us.

Julie Cheng:  I’m glad to be here. Thank you.

KWHS: Talk a little bit about your winning essay. What did you write about?

Cheng: They say the best business ideas come from personal experience. I remember standing outside at 6 a.m. in the morning, waiting for the bus to arrive, and having my iPod and also having my gloves on and not being able to turn the wheel on my iPod to change the song or to make the volume louder. I was really frustrated by that. I would have to take off my glove every single time and reposition it. For me, that was a huge hassle.

I wrote an essay about the solution that I saw to that. And since the business plan really asked more [about] how you would conceptualize the idea or how you would market the idea, I just went ahead and talked about my strategies for how I would approach this problem. The product I described, [Skins gloves], was one that had a synthetic-type material that would also be compatible with a touch screen capacitive technology. So I had to do a lot of research about where touch screen technology was heading and the mechanics of how that works and what types of fibers would probably work with a touch screen iPhone. So yes, I developed the product.

The really fun part was coming up with the marketing for it because I had to think what, as a consumer, drove me to make a purchase. When you’re in high school, obviously, you use your parents’ money for a lot of things. Maybe you don’t really think about your purchases. But you are influenced a lot by what you see in the media or what the celebrities are wearing. I was a really artsy person, so aesthetics really mattered to me as well. I developed a marketing plan that was based on pop culture impact and celebrity marketing. So I submitted my plan, and that was basically my first exposure to Wharton.

KWHS: Did you have any ideas for how to take this entrepreneurial idea and turn it into something real?

Cheng:  Well, at the time, I was also working on a different project that I’d founded at my school, which was a nonprofit arts education initiative called Create with Care. I was focused on that, and I didn’t really have time to move into a high-tech business venture.

But what I can say about the business plan [is that the contest showed me] Wharton had resources and put an emphasis on entrepreneurial programs. Promoting that entrepreneurial spirit made me really consider Wharton when I was doing my college applications. I wanted to go to a school where you could explore your interests and have the resources to do that.

I definitely think [as a freshman] that I’ve met a lot of people who are going to be great resources moving ahead if I ever wanted to start an entrepreneurial venture. I think that’s definitely something I’m interested in. There are a lot of programs at Wharton that support that. Moving forward in my next four years, I would definitely want to get involved [in entrepreneurship]. And even if it’s not [the glove] idea, there are a ton of ideas around. Just capturing the spirit and energy on this campus is something that I can leverage moving forward.

KWHS:  Tell me a little bit about Create with Care. What happened with that?

Cheng:  Okay. So basically, to change the world, start local, right? They all say that. In my county, we had huge budget deficits. Every county across the nation was facing this because of the recession. One of the first things that they cut was arts education funding because, I guess, arts are considered not as important or not as concrete as maybe cutting science funding, which to some extent, is understandable. But I have a passion for art. And I’d always had the opportunity to take private art classes and have really great arts instructors throughout public school as well. I wanted to make sure students would still have the opportunity to learn about arts and crafts in school and explore those interests. I also had done an internship at the National Institutes of Health [in Bethesda, Md.] the summer before. They had this center called the Children’s Inn. It’s basically a hospital for patients. But a lot of the patients also undergo clinical research that happens at the National Institutes of Health because they might have a condition that is specific or unique or rare.

Create with Care is a combination of these two interests. So we work through local high schools to promote peer-to-peer instruction on arts and crafts. Everything we make is donated to local hospitals. The idea is really that you brighten this child’s day by sending them a friendship bracelet with a nice note attached or just something to decorate their room with. We have origami mobiles — just something to brighten up a very stark, white hospital scene.

KWHS: What happens to an endeavor like this when you leave high school and go to college?

Cheng: You definitely learn a lot from starting an initiative in high school. You learn about managing people, managing relationships, managing your time well. You learn about how to go about addressing an issue that you see as important. So that’s definitely a mindset and a skill set that you take to college with you. However, when you’re in college, you really don’t have much time to deal with — or at least I felt like I didn’t have enough time to deal with — what I had started in my high school days. So for me, it was really important to pass it off to someone who I trusted that would keep the initiative going.

KWHS: Back on the essay contest for a just minute — I don’t want to leave it just yet — what prompted or motivated you to participate in it, to actually submit an essay for the contest?

Cheng: Definitely an underutilized but super important resource in high school is your guidance counselors because they get forwards about contests and competitions and scholarships all the time. I would say visiting your high school counselor maybe once a month would be a good idea, especially during the spring contest season, because there is a lot going on. There are a lot of corporations, a lot of schools, lots of institutions that are putting contests out there. And there are a lot of really great prizes, really great people you can meet, and really great experiences that you can have by entering these things. So I learned about it through my high school counselor who knew I was interested in business and just forwarded it along to her students.

Sometimes you read a contest prompt and you’re a little daunted. You know 20,000 people are going to enter and you don’t know if you want to. So I was definitely daunted by Wharton as this brand-name school. I knew a lot of people would enter, and it was also an international competition, which, obviously, would increase numbers. What really made me want to enter the contest was the fact that the criteria and the rubric really stressed your creativity. It said, ‘We’re looking for someone who can think outside the box and someone who really has a good, critical angle towards solving a problem or marketing a product.’ The emphasis on creativity encouraged me to apply.

KWHS: It’s a good message. There’s a lot of creativity in business.

Cheng: Yes, exactly.

KWHS: So you’ve talked about the entrepreneurial spirit on campus here. What are you studying at Wharton? What’s your focus

Cheng:  I’m a freshman, so we technically don’t have to declare a concentration until the end of sophomore year. But there’s such an emphasis here on really exploring your options and exploring what you’re interested in. I’ve definitely been thinking about concentrations a bit. And the culture here has a very strong mentorship bias in that upperclassmen are always willing to talk to underclassmen about what they found useful or what concentrations and classes they think are really important to take or they think have a huge value to an undergraduate education.

Just by feeling through that and doing some thinking on my own, I think I’d be interested in doing an entrepreneurial management concentration, probably a minor in energy and sustainability. I’m really interested in OPIM [Operations and Information Management] because I took an OPIM class this semester.

KWHS: Can you talk about OPIM a little bit for those who don’t know what that means

Cheng: OPIM is such a cool class because the people who are teaching it basically invented this subject. You’ll find this a lot at Wharton because a lot of the professors here are leaders in their fields, or they have basically created topics that they’re teaching about. So it’s really interesting to put a number and equations to things that happen in everyday life.

You’ve probably stood in a line before at Starbucks. But it wasn’t until OPIM that I learned that there are actual mathematical ways you can predict how long the queue is going to be based on how many servers there are and the setup of how lines are created. So OPIM, basically, is a strategic and decision-processes framework for looking at everyday situations and operations that happen within a business, which is why I loved OPIM so much.

KWHS: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Where would you like to be

Cheng: What I’ve learned since coming to Wharton is that business is so broad. And there are so many opportunities you can take advantage of, especially coming from Wharton, because you come with a technical skill set that all employers and all people respect. You come with the ability, moreover, to make relationships work and to present yourself really well and to know how to look for opportunity. I would say the technical skills, as well as the relationship/people skills, that you learn at [college] are so important. Having that is really empowering because once you get here and you’re surrounded by this culture of everyone being able to pursue different interests, you know that there’s really nothing you can’t do.

I would personally love to do something where I’d get to travel a lot. I think I might want to write a memoir one day, but that’s probably not in 10 years. But definitely live a life where I move around and explore a lot of different things. I’d love to work in an industry that I care a lot about, like energy or maybe media. That’s what the business education really gets you — the ability to feel like you can look at the world and see opportunity in it.

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