As the son of two engineers and as a happily self-professed math and science “geek,” it’s probably not surprising that 18 year-old Chris Kuehn built some of the best soapbox derby cars of any kid. His personal favorite was shaped like a pancake, complete with a pat of plastic butter and glue drizzled over the top for syrup.
It’s the sort of telling detail that perfectly captures his two passions—an urge to create and a desire to support his creations with technical skill. It was also those two qualities that led Chris to serve as president of the award-winning JA Company Program during his senior year at Mounds View High School.
The JA Company Program allows students to strategize and create their own for-profit business, with all the attendant sales, marketing, production, distribution and profit/loss recordkeeping such a venture entails. The company that Chris and his fellow students created was a highly successful advertising and graphic design business called Designspire. It was selected as the 2013 Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest (JAUM) Company of the Year, and Chris and his team went on to compete at the JA national level in Washington D.C.
For his efforts, Chris also received a $1,000 scholarship from the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year program, which selects recipients based on both their personal and academic achievements and their support of JA programs.
Chris leans eagerly across a table as he describes how he became involved with Designspire, absently pushing his hand across his forehead again and again in a futile attempt to tame his floppy brown curls.
“A couple of friends who were on the Econ team [at Mounds View] came to me and said, ‘Hey, there’s this brand-new program at school this year,” he says. “I had had [program advisor] Martha Rush for a few different classes and she’s a fantastic teacher who specializes in econ-related subjects. I was intrigued so I showed up after school for the first meeting. Within a day or two, I was involved with the company program, and at our next meeting, I was elected president of the company by popular vote.”
Chris’ words—like his ideas—seem to spill out of him in a torrent. As he tells the story, Designspire was the brainchild of just that sort of energy and brainstorming among the group as they searched for a concept for their fledgling business.
“We had really good creative sessions with the group where we’d get everybody in the room and just sort of bounce ideas off of each other,” he says. “Creating our logo, creating our name, we realized we really liked that process so we decided, ‘Well, we don’t necessarily have to have a product that we bring to people. What if we have a creative product, a service?’ We had a couple of really good artists in the group and some really tech-savvy kids who were good at computer design.”
Designspire began creating logos for various student groups—the Math Team, the Gay Straight Alliance, the Shakespeare Club and others. In addition to creating logos for school teams—and eventually for businesses outside the school—Designspire arranged for the printing of t-shirts with the logos, which it then sold to its clients. Along the way, Chris and his team had to overcome real-world frustrations such as technical problems with their graphic programs and challenges working effectively with their vendors. Through it all, Chris said he thrived on the process, particularly the challenge of managing creative individuals.
“[Being president of Designspire] was a lot of making sure that everyone had their ideas heard, not just the two or three people who felt really, really strongly about something,” he says. “And pricing our services was really kind of interesting because it wasn’t, ‘We charge $7 for a water bottle.’ Our price was based on the number of t-shirts, the number of colors in each print, the type of t-shirt, how many they wanted and so on.”
As he prepares to start college this fall, Chris plans to put his Ernst & Young JA scholarship toward pursuing a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering. And in an unusual double major that he describes as “engineering and entrepreneurship,” he will also take classes at the Carlson School of Management.
“I’d like to start on the engineering side since having the technical background is a big deal, being able to talk the talk of the engineers,” he says about his plans. “And I’d also like to develop my people skills and use that to be an engineering team-lead type of person. I’d like to go from there to develop my own engineering firm. That’s the dream.”
As far as developing his people skills, Chris seems to have a lock on that already. He was active in a wide variety of extracurricular activities in high school, including serving as the National Honor Society co-president, and being a leader in a freshman-mentoring group called Mustang Mentors. He played soccer until his junior year, and threw discus as part of the track team. He was also actively involved in a program called The Synergy Group, which focused on recycling on the high school campus.
Chris’ unique, innate blend of creativity and technical inclination showed itself perfectly last year during his stint as lead set engineer for his high school’s production of the Shakespeare play, “The Tempest.”
He decided that the perfect backdrop for the play, which features a tremendous storm, would be to make it actually “rain” on stage.
“I spent a couple of weeks drawing up designs for a PVC pipe system we could run water through to try to get the best form of rain over the backdrop. I was learning a little bit of fluid dynamics math to try and figure out how much water we’d need in the system, how fast it was going to run and that sort of thing,” He pauses for just a moment and then flashes a grin. “I’m pretty sure I scared the director because she decided not to let me do that.”