As is annual tradition, the Arkansas Times recently solicited suggestions from readers and a variety of experts on how to make Arkansas a better place to live. We present their ideas here and hope you find them as inspirational as we do. If any especially strike a chord with you, help make them happen. Many are works in progress; those that aren't only lack the right collection of advocates to be realized.
Last summer, while his peers were lifeguarding and waiting tables, Josh Moody started a company. Accepted into the highly competitive ARK Challenge startup accelerator in Fayetteville, the 17-year-old Catholic High School student developed Overwatch, a mobile application that brings features of combat video games to live Airsoft, paintball or laser-tag shoot 'em ups. By the end of the four-month ARK Challenge, Overwatch had signed a marketing agreement with Cybergun, the largest manufacturer of Airsoft guns in the country, and secured $150,000 in funding as one of ARK's three winners.
Josh has a lot of things going for him. He's a tech wunderkind, a self-taught coder and tinkerer whose creations include a custom Xbox, a modified PlayStation Portable that controls TVs and a waterproof speaker that streams music wirelessly through Bluetooth and can float or be sunk. His father, David Moody, is an active investor and mover and shaker in Arkansas's startup scene. The elder Moody introduced his son to Bentonville developers Michael Paladino and Joe Saumweber, cofounders of the digital products startup RevUnit. Out of respect for David Moody and despite their initial skepticism, Paladino and Saumweber took a meeting with Josh and were sufficiently impressed with his vision for Overwatch to agree to team with him to develop the company. Without them and the support he got at the ARK, Josh couldn't have moved from idea to prototype — or at least not as as quickly as he did.
Josh and his circumstances are unique, but if a number of new Arkansas initiatives gain traction, there will be more young people starting businesses soon. "I think it's the new sports," said Noble Impact cofounder Chad Williamson of youth entrepreneurship. Even if a kid isn't a prodigious talent like Josh — who, to extend Williamson's metaphor, might be the Lebron James of the Arkansas youth startup set — the experience of trying to build a company has value, Noble CEO Eric Wilson said. "Entrepreneurship is a medium where kids can learn about teamwork and critical thinking and problem solving, so they can be more adaptive in a 21st century economy."
Earlier this year Williamson cofounded Noble Impact with fellow Clinton School alum Trish Flanagan and Steve Clark, a cofounder of Rockfish Interactive and Fort Smith supply-chain company Propak. They're working to develop an education model that encourages public service while teaching entrepreneurship. The Clinton School is a partner. Williamson and co. have been developing its curriculum in the field, with a class called Noble Impact 101 at eStem High School. It seems to be getting through to the students. In November, six eStem students won a prize at Startup Weekend in Fayetteville (see below).
Meanwhile, Little Rock's Matt Steely wants Central Arkansas "to become the summertime youth innovation mecca." Steely, who has 25 years of experience in startups and technology, recently worked with the Arkansas Capital Corp. to develop and implement a four-hour program on innovation and entrepreneurship for students across the state. "We could take a kid who knew nothing, and get him to have an understanding of what it means to be innovative." But the program didn't allow for crucial follow-up, and when the federal grant money that supported the project ended, Steely decided to create Sparkible, an education startup focused on hosting events and mentoring engaged young people, while it develops a tool that'll pay for its good works. David Moody, Josh's dad, is working with Steely to develop the company.