Catalyst: Business Brilliance

How future entrepreneurs, interns and educators get their start
Catalyst members spend their Catalyst hour volunteering at charities as a part of their curriculum.
Catalyst members spend their Catalyst hour volunteering at charities as a part of their curriculum.
Senior Aanya Singh works with other interns to fix a light bulb on one of her real-estate agents properties
What is Catalyst?

Senior Aanya Singh types hurriedly on her computer, organizing data collection for a real estate agent managing eight properties. Senior Addy Whitesell curates social media posts and runs the outreach efforts of a small local St. Louis business. While these tasks may seem like full-time jobs, they are actually internships sanctioned through Clayton High School within a program called Catalyst. Catalyst is a smaller network of the larger Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS). The program circuit includes students from Brentwood, University City, Ladue and Clayton high schools. Essentially, Catalyst takes place at the end of every school day for program participants. In their last period, they drive off campus to the Catalyst site and spend about an hour working on different projects, assignments and tasks, depending on the time of year. Within the first quarter of the Catalyst program, classes are focused on building one’s resume and how to get a foot in the business industry door, learning about professionalism and work-place etiquette. Students learn the soft skills needed to be successful in the program being taught how to make an elevator pitch, respond to questions in a mock interview, compose professional thank-you notes, create a LinkedIn account and write questions for panelists. Once they complete their first quarter of the class, students can focus on one of the three strands of Catalyst: education, internships, or entrepreneurship. While no Clayton students participate in the education strand, many Ladue students do. They go to Ladue Elementary schools to help assist classrooms during their Catalyst hour. “Some kids choose the Catalyst program because they know they want to go into the educational field or become a teacher, so they actually can go in and help classrooms, working as assistant teachers,” Singh said. According to Catalyst associates, internships are often the most accessible and quickest way to learn about business through immersive experiences. “If you want to start a business right off the bat, you pitch for money,” junior Shiv Patel said. “If you think you want to work in, say, landscape, then go out and get an internship within landscaping, and every day during that time, you’re gonna intern for a local business to provide some help.” Within the entrepreneurship sector, students can come in with existing businesses, utilizing class time to further develop their efforts, or they can come up with entirely new ideas, developing a business from scratch. Student entrepreneurs are given seed money to start, but can also pitch for Angel grants, which oftentimes take place in the winter, before second semester begins. They can use this money to start their well-developed business idea. If students develop a business idea with success, their innovations are showcased at The Pitch, an end of year competition open to business students and members of the community. Winners of The Pitch are awarded funding to further develop their product or service. However, Catalyst students do not just create their own businesses or intern at companies, they also volunteer as a requirement for the course. Every single month the Catalyst students volunteer at a local charity, in events called site visits. Oftentimes they will do volunteer work at Operation Food Search or the Little Bit Foundation, attending in groups of around 10. The students, whether they are volunteering, working on their projects or attending Catalyst class, have to drive off campus, which many participants enjoy. “I like [the off-campus aspect], because it makes you feel you’re entering a new, professional space. It feels a lot more official and professional, like, okay, this is a legit thing,” Singh said. Justin Hildebrand, Catalyst director and DECA coach, has worked on Catalyst for years, continuing to develop the program and make it better every year. Patel noted how Hildebrand refers to his Clayton Catalyst students as “associates.” He does this in order to make his students feel as though they are in a new, more professional environment every time they drive off campus to the program. Patel believes that it adds to the fact that Catalyst is a prestigious, selective program that is a privilege to be a part of, as many other schools do not have the chance to be a part of the CAPS initiative.

Senior Aanya Singh works with other interns to fix a light bulb on one of her real-estate agent’s properties (Catalyst)
Duffy Hofer pitches her brand Disguise the Surprise to the Catalyst associates for potential internship opportunities.

Within Catalyst, students are not graded on how successful their business turned out, or how much they learned from an internship, but rather something called panel prep. Almost every other week a local business, firm or company will visit the Catalyst site and talk about their mission, backstory and goals. Then, students will ask the panel pre-written questions that they receive a grade on. Associates are required to wear Catalyst merchandise or business attire, for every panel. Patel said, “In Catalyst, you’re graded by doing what’s called panel prep. So whenever we have these finance or real estate panels, a couple of days before, we research the people that are coming, so we have questions for them.” Panels provide many opportunities to network, as students will stay after questioning time to discuss their personal goals with the business professionals. There are many business aspects that the panels explore with Clayton being a populous city of local and commercial businesses. “For every panel, there are certain companies. We’ve done real estate, finance, nonprofit, marketing, accounting, and it’s really good to get that exposure,” Whitesell said. “Like, now I know about real estate, and I didn’t know about any of it before, but through talking with [real estate agents] now I know more.” Whitesell pointed out how most of the learning garnered from the panels are verbal skills, like learning how to have a conversation with a professional. “We have to introduce ourselves, we have to be nice, have poise and stuff like that,” she said. “I mean, handshakes, eye contact, all those things that are considered norms in the professional world.”

Duffy Hofer pitches her brand Disguise the Surprise to the Catalyst associates for potential internship opportunities. (Catalyst)
Students box up food to deliver to families, through Operation Food Search on Jan. 4.

The dream for any teenager participating in a business extracurricular, is to find immediate success and accomplishment with a business idea. However, oftentimes, that dream does not become reality. “A lot of people want to make their own companies and start and then realize that it’s not as feasible as they thought,” Whitesell said. Yet, while successful entrepreneurial projects are difficult to start and maintain, it is not impossible. There have been many businesses started in Catalyst that have garnered success in the real world. Successful examples include the revamping of the Clayton school spirit store, designing and producing merchandise to be sold to and purchased by students, from a team of Clayton Catalyst members in the 2023-2024 school year. Another is a successful candle making company, started by a high school student outside of Clayton. For Whitesell, her Catalyst experience has been filled with enlightening internship experience and the planning of a unique project, beginning with her prior business experience participating in the Distributive Education Clubs of America, or DECA. Whitsell had qualified to state while working within the DECA program, building up her entrepreneurial experience. However, Catalyst had not been brought to her attention through Hildebrand or other Catalyst students, but rather her own mother. Whitesell’s mom had introduced the CAPS network to the St. Charles school districts, and through this exposure, encouraged her daughter to join her local CAPS program at Clayton, which happened to be Catalyst. Whitesell started her 2023 fall semester completing an internship for a small business called Disguise the Surprise. The company is run by Ladue mom, Duffy Hofer, and her interns. The idea behind the business was to bring a sense of creativity and surprise to gift wrapping, disguising gifts in a unique display, representing it as something it is not. Whitesell led the businesses social media, curating posts and helping Hofer with whatever assistance she may need during her Catalyst hour. Whitsell would attend with Hofer to sell products in person and at local fairs, pitching the brand. Within the entrepreneurship sector, one can also complete a passion project. In her third quarter, Whitesell helped to run the Dance Marathon fundraiser, through the Children’s Miracle Network for the high school’s annual event, as her project in Catalyst. Whitesell found great success, raising over $47,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network, alongside the rest of the Dance Marathon members. Similar to Whitesell, before Singh’s Catalyst journey began, she was a part of other business extracurriculars at Clayton. Singh joined DECA her junior year qualifying to state, and Catalyst her senior year. “When you go to these [DECA] competitions and whatnot and see people professionally dressed and competing seriously, it’s such a benefit,” she said. “That propelled me to want to explore business further.” In August of her senior year, Singh started out her Catalyst experience with a hands-on, immersive internship. Her first internship was with the Little Bit Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on breaking down educational barriers, helping under-resourced school communities gain access to opportunities. Singh helped throughout her internship by helping coordinate launch parties and event planning. Her second internship, and more rigorous of the two, during her spring semester was within the real estate industry. She helped a full-time property manager and Clayton mother, with real estate tasks to help manage finances, data organization and checking on certain properties. “I didn’t realize how many details you have to pay attention to, especially within real estate since I am managing her whole system,” Singh said. Singh has the added benefit of attending Washington University in the fall, and has already networked and found business contacts stationed in St. Louis for potential internships when she begins college. In contrast to Singh’s and Whitesell’s senior experience, Patel is only a junior, with much more experience and business expertise in comparison to his other non-senior peers. Patel, an intellectually curious student, keeps himself busy with many business related extracurricular activities, sports, AP classes and a well-maintained social life. He joined Catalyst because of the opportunities it would open up for him post high school and college. He plans on going into business when he finishes high school. Patel wanted to start out in the entrepreneurship strand of Catalyst when he arrived in August of his junior year, but was surprised as to the difficulty of coming up with a successful business idea. “Entrepreneurship is so much harder than you would think,” Patel said. The junior joked that his second quarter of trial-and-error for entrepreneurship reminded him of a kid in a movie sitting at a desk, crumpling up paper after paper and tossing it across a room. “That’s completely how it was,” he said. “I mean, I’d have two, three, four different ideas. I’d have to figure out the plausibility and whatnot, and that’s hard because, for me, I felt like I was looking for that perfect idea.” However, Patels character is defined by his resilience, as he felt he took away a lot of important lessons from his time in second quarter. Patels struggles when exploring entrepreneurship were more rooted in specific aspects of business creation, like the demand for certain products, or the costly fees required to start a good idea. “I had a couple good ideas that I’d really get into and research, and then I’d be like, ‘Dang, I have to engineer that, I don’t know crap about engineering.’ Or, then another project sounded cool, but it’d be like 600 bucks, and I don’t have that money, so [the] logistics is what it really came down to,” he said. With Patels crammed schedule, starting a business for him was too much to take on, yet, he still hopes to sometime find that success in the future, already coming up with ideas for small-scale projects over the summer. The most important skill that Patel has taken away from his year in catalyst, has been learning how to talk professionally and with confidence to adults, in addition to self accountability. “It’s just a life skill,” he said. “Overall, [my biggest takeaway has been] the principle of self accountability. When you go into Catalyst every day, there’s no one looking over your shoulder asking you if you’re doing your work. Now we have to log basically what you do each day, because Hildebrand wanted to make sure we were being productive, but even so, we call him Chill-debrand just because he’s chill.” Singh, Whitesell and Patel have all found success through Catalyst in some regard, whether it be lessons or skills taken away, or simply new connections to have for potential internships in college.

Students box up food to deliver to families, through Operation Food Search on Jan. 4. (Catalyst)
Trulaske College of Business from the University of Missouri visits the Catalyst classroom on Sept. 8.

Catalyst can serve as a beneficial tool for future business leaders, in a multitude of ways. One of those being the benefits that transfer from Catalyst, to other extracurriculars. Whitesell recognizes this within DECA, and said, “I’m just deepening the skills I’ve already learned in DECA, and solidifying them.” As Patel highlighted, the aspect of learning to be accountable for one’s personal learning and productivity, is a benefit that many can appreciate. “There’s no accountability,” Whitesell said. “All that you put into it is what you’re gonna get out of it. People who are able to be self motivated and get their work done and manage their time will be effective [in Catalyst.]” Additionally, the program’s detachment from school is important for broadening one’s horizon, as it differentiates skills learned in the classroom, versus the real business world. “Catalyst doesn’t relate as much to school, and I think that’s the important distinction. That’s why I like to promote Catalyst so much, because it gives you so much knowledge that you don’t attain through school and extracurriculars, because it’s all about being in the real world, right?” Patel said. The biggest idea in Catalyst for associates is the idea of going out and trying something new for the purpose of education and hands-on experience. This method of learning has helped many students hone in on their passion, with all 13 Clayton Catalyst students from the 2022-2023 school year, majoring in business at their college in some form. Whether it be marketing, real estate or business itself, all of those students ended up pursuing the business field, which is a trend seen every year in the program. Regarding self-motivation, Patel told his friends interested in joining Catalyst, that in order to be successful, they must be disciplined enough to truly motivate themselves. He said, “It’s the same thing anywhere if you go into your job. You can go in there and bum around and do the bare minimum and get your paycheck but you’re never gonna get promoted. You can go into Catalyst and go to the panels, do the panel prep, get an A plus in the class, but what did you really take away from it?” Overall, Patel, and the other associate’s biggest piece of advice was to simply: “Just enjoy your time.” Catalyst develops critical skills that can help prepare one for real world situations, assisting in building up not just one’s resume, but also one’s life experiences. Catalyst is a very prestigious and unique opportunity that Clayton gets to have, offering opportunities of a lifetime for those who are selected to be a part of it. “I mean, five, six years from now a lot of us are going to be out doing whatever, some people in grad school, some people will be working. Five, six years is not that much time,” Patel said. “So being in Catalyst and figuring out what you want to do now is going to be really helpful to getting to the point that you want to be at, in the future.”

Trulaske College of Business from the University of Missouri visits the Catalyst classroom on Sept. 8. (Catalyst)
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Charlie Meyers
Charlie Meyers, Senior Managing Editor
Charlie Meyers is a junior at this year and is one of two Senior Managing Editors on the Globe staff. She has been on staff for three years and initially joined the Globe because of her passion for journalism and interest to get involved in her school. Outside of Globe, Charlie is also a part of Speech and Debate, StuCo, MYAC, Field Hockey, Lacrosse, and is Junior Class President.
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