WEST ORANGE, NJ — The first year of the West Orange Virtual Enterprise International (VEI) program at the high school culminated with students thanking their community sponsors and going over the highlights from an eventful first year in business. 

At West Orange High School (WOHS), the VE program—which launched at WOHS at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year—is a full-year business education class that is open to juniors and seniors who have strong interest and a background in business.

The program is part of VEI, which is an educational non-profit that exposes students to authentic business experiences so that they can accumulate skills that will lead to financially secure futures, according to its website.

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“It’s like nothing else that we’re teaching here at the high school,” said VE facilitator Maria Frangos. “Think of a regular classroom as you remember it. That’s not how [VE] is.”

She elaborated that the classroom functions like a start-up company and all students—while separated into departments such as finance, operations, marketing, IT and design—work together to run their virtual business.

As a traditional teacher, Frangos said that it was “hard to relinquish control,” but that it was not her job as a facilitator to tell her students what to do. All she could do was guide them through the course, allowing the students to fall back on the information that they learned throughout the different business courses taught at the high school.

“So, it’s not like I’m saying, ‘Today we’re going to learn how to do a business plan,’” she said. “No. ‘Today you’re going to learn how to do a business plan.”’

The classroom environment was further transformed into a business atmosphere thanks to the purchase of a conference table and desks thanks to funds provided by Mayor Robert Parisi, who said that he was happy to help in any way that he could.

Since VEI’s inception in 1996, more than 140,000 students have participated in the VEI program, test-driving potential careers while developing skills that future employers are currently seeking.

Globally, VEI spans 40 countries; but according to VEI’s New York Metro Area Regional Director Paul Presti, there are 465 schools and 530 VE firms in the United States that currently participate in the program, with more schools getting ready to participate for the next school year.

Presti hopes that one day New Jersey will beat Long Island, which currently has the largest VE presence on the east coast with 90 schools and 100 firms currently participating.

“The more schools that are in [VE]; the more firms there are; the better the excitement is for all the students,” said Presti. “It’s just a great thing.”

In addition to running and maintaining a virtual business, students also had the opportunity to compete against and network with other schools around the world in order to promote their brand and product.

According its website, the West Orange-based start-up EliaLife, Inc., not only sells organic olive oil, but is also “dedicated to improving customer health while assisting in the preservation of traditional olive oil farming.”

The WOHS group participated in a variety of competitions for accolades that included best business plan, sales pitch, booth design, marketing materials, newsletter and other categories. After participating in several small trade shows, the students said that it built their confidence when it came to time to present their business at a convention on the international stage at the end of the year.

Like any business in its first year, Frangos said that there were bumps in the road for EliaLife, but that she was glad that the students were able to place third their first statewide contest, the NJ/PA Business Expo & Business Plan Competition.

“To come in third out of 19 teams is an exceptional feat,” said Presti. “[Especially] with a brand-new teacher.”

He added that the number of teams that competed in 2018 went from six to 19 the following year, which made the result even more remarkable.

Frangos admitted that she felt nervous since it was her first time facilitating the course; but Nancy Mullin, Supervisor of Career and Library Science for West Orange Schools, said that Frangos is a “very hardworking, dedicated professional.” Mullin also said she thought Frangos would be perfect because she took the course seriously and because she works well with the students.

“I just want to thank you so much for putting all the hard work in this year and for getting us all these awards,” Mullin said to Frangos. “All your efforts really brighten their future.”

Frangos also said that in addition to the hard work her students put in, the finished product would not have been possible without the help of several members of the West Orange Chamber of Commerce (WOCC) who sat on EliaLife’s Board of Directors.

Among those board members were Keller Williams realtor Tez Roro and The Kids Palace owner Joy Reyes-Moton, who provided funding for team T-shirts. Content creator Patty Stern was also instrumental in the team’s success, providing her talents to help develop the team’s website and the promotional materials that were distributed on the show floor.

Roro said that although the business is “virtual,” actually preparing for the competitions requires money, which was donated this year by multiple local business owners. Frangos added that the support and monetary donations form local businesses helped prop EliaLife up and it paid off.

According to Frangos, future students now have two options: to either continue with the EliaLife brand and develop it into a lifestyle brand—branching away from selling only olive oil to also selling products that include olive oil, such as cosmetics—or to start from scratch with a new business.

In addition to being eligible for dual credits or a total of six credits received from both passing the course and passing the subsequent final NOCTI exam to be used as college credits towards electives, participating students are also invited to Fairleigh Dickenson University to take a “Walk on Wall Street” and ring the bell at a closing ceremony this summer.

Students who take the course are also eligible to receive scholarships from a variety of sources including the Rotary Club, the Orange/West Orange UNICO chapter and the West Orange Scholarship Fund.

Below is a list of sponsors that helped Elia Life to succeed. 

  • Syed Husaini, Medicos Pharmacy: Gift Basket for raffle
  • Roman Martens, British Swim School: Prize wheel
  • Susan McCartney, First Mountain Preschool: String lights for booth
  • Joy Reyes-Moton, the Kids Palace: T-shirts
  • Tez Roro, Keller Williams: T-shirts
  • George Sosa, Sosa Insurance Group: Cash Donation
  • Stacey Staaterman Feeney, Staaterman Enterprises LLC: Cash donation
  • Patty Stern, Patty Stern Creative: Postcards for Show Booth
  • Maria Frangos, Course Facilitator: Oil Backdrop and various booth items.
  • Nancy Mullin, program supervisor: Bread, Candy