Can’t someone else do it? Young America’s misguided approach to innovation.

In the last month, I have dedicated a portion of my free time to volunteering with high school entrepreneurs who are interested in receiving mentorship and assistance from professionals in their area. This was all in preparation for the FedEx Junior Business Challenge, to be held in Atlanta in late September of 2017.

On September 21, the winners were announced. The $75,000 donation from FedEx was awarded to a group of high-school-aged, aspiring women entrepreneurs from New England with a product called LO-K8 (pronounced “locate”).

Good-looking group.

Yes, that means my students lost. Was I surprised? Not particularly. My team had decided to take their business in the non-profit direction in order to solve a social problem. It was also a sensitive subject, difficult to scale, and likely wrapped in bureaucratic red tape. That also means they hadn’t sold a physical product (though they had healthy initial fundraising). They knowingly narrowed their chances of a win for a fundamentally entrepreneurial judgment.

LO-K8 on the other hand had already sold a substantial amount of their product and were, as I’m told, “working with a manufacturer in China.” 
OK, now they had my attention.

What does LO-K8 do?

LO-K8 is a bluetooth device used for locating belongings, finding your phone or taking a photo remotely. If it sounds familiar, it should. The technology is about four years old and it was likely purchased from Alibaba.com.

Literally white-labelled.

Why innovation matters.

Not anymore, America. Time to step up!

Regardless of your political leanings, I think most Americans can agree that innovation is important to our society. Important enough even to have an entire office added to the White House in its name.

And it’s important to encourage our young people to be makers. They need to move fast and break things, as they say. As “maker” culture and even Design Thinking starts to become part of our education system, the workforce will have greater expectations around the technical and creative abilities of our high school graduates. That’s why we have things like Girls Who Code that blend technical concepts with creative problem-solving. (It’s worth noting that the LO-K8 site was produced on Wix, so they didn’t even get the opportunity to learn much technically about their own marketing media.)

So who told these young women that being an entrepreneur is ordering cheap electronics from China and repackaging it as a new product?
Did they learn about order fulfillment? Social media marketing? Which fundamental entrepreneurial concepts were born of this endeavor?

“The FedEx Junior Business Challenge has provided JA students with another opportunity to develop a product or service, create a business plan, and produce and market their innovation, while also continuing to develop their presentation skills,”
— Asheesh Advani, CEO, JA Worldwide
It’s not that they need to hide their identity (this is from a press release); it’s that I want to show they are blind to how real innovation happens.

LO-K8 in a global society.

Based on the criteria outlined, it bothers me that their mentors skipped three of these five goals and still qualified for this challenge. The product was off-the-shelf and the ethics are debatable.

The obvious issue around overseas manufacturing of electronics is the worker quality-of-life in these plants. This product is too inexpensive to be subject to the strict guidelines that a company like Apple can mandate. It is even possible that their product was assembled by someone their own age or younger. If my sleuthing is correct and LO-K8 is in fact produced by Innovast in Guangdong, that means they are also likely perpetuating it’s reputation for containing the largest electronic waste site on Earth.

And it’s easy to dismiss these problems because they are not domestic. So let’s talk about the domestic problem with businesses of this nature: it actually destroys uniquely innovative products. How? Manufactures in China will routinely manufacture more units than ordered (this can be a domestic product or an overseas one) and sell the remainder without the branding for a lower price. Buying unbranded knock-offs and selling them as a unique product is nearly as criminal as counterfeiting. Some would argue that it’s not different at all.

iPhone clone running Windows. Gross. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)

There is a part of me that thinks we are not the caricatures we create. I want to believe in the hopeful, post-millenial generation that represents a diverse landscape of empathetic, conscientious beings. And despite my pronounced cynicism, I volunteered to mentor them. I hope this article inspires you to do so as well. We can’t afford to let corporate social responsibility be some box to check.

And if FedEx continues down this path, they might have to update their logo.

Get it? Like they’re moving us backwards.