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McCook Central student full of 'BIG' ideas

Christian Westhoff, 18, recently won the BIG Idea Competition for the second year in a row through the South Dakota Small Business Development Center. This year, the senior at McCook Central High School in Salem created the business called Dakota Cubs, which creates customizable stuffed teddy bears. (Photo courtesy of Christian Westhoff)

SALEM — Christian Westhoff turned her love of sewing into an award-winning business plan.

The 18-year-old McCook Central student recently took first place at the BIG Idea Competition in Aberdeen for her idea called Dakota Cubs — a business that creates customizable stuffed teddy bears.

But while some of her competitors presented only an idea and plan, Westhoff went all out, physically making the bears and selling the items for a profit.

"The main intent of the BIG Idea Competition is to expose youth to the possibility of creating their own future through entrepreneurship and to see opportunities in their own communities. When students like Christian actually create a business, it is very exciting to support that effort," said Kelly Weaver, the BIG Idea Coordinator with the South Dakota Small Business Development Center.

The BIG Idea Competition is in its 10th year, and saw 243 entries from 357 students in 37 schools, Weaver said. Several of the students, including Westhoff, were offered scholarships as prizes. Westhoff was given a $1,000 cash prize as well as a $1,000 scholarship to Northern State University and a $1,000 scholarship to Presentation College in Aberdeen.

But before she decides on a postsecondary institution, Westhoff is going to continue with her project — which is going beyond the competition.

Westhoff, a senior at McCook Central High School, is planning to create an Etsy shop to sell even more handcrafted items — not just teddy bears. Etsy is an e-commerce website for both sellers and buyers focusing on handmade or vintage items.

"It's really small, but it's getting paid for something that I do anyway," Westhoff said.

While she already has two part-time jobs on top of school, Westhoff plans to open the shop later this month. And she hopes to continue the small business as she moves from Salem and into college. Westhoff is still undecided on where to go, but plans to attend a South Dakota university for the first two years of her postsecondary education for photojournalism.

Introducing more to entrepreneurship

Westhoff isn't new to the BIG Idea Competition.

This is the 18 year old's second year winning the state award. Last year, Westhoff and two other students at McCook Central — Mercedes Peterson and Hunter Matthaei — took first for their "MCH Design" idea. The trio created spirit bands and keychains to sell within the school and show off school pride.

The idea was part of a class project, and this year Westhoff decided to enter completely on her own.

"It was very nerve-racking the entire time because you put so much work into something hoping that when you get there, you'll get noticed," Westhoff said.

And she did, and Westhoff couldn't be happier with the result.

If she could, Westhoff said she'd compete again next year if she weren't graduating. The competition, she said, is very informational on top of being a lot of fun. Entrepreneurs and business owners talked with students, including Westhoff, about all aspects of their jobs, and the ups and downs of starting a business.

"It's such a good opportunity for people and you do learn so much," Westhoff said, adding more schools in South Dakota should get involved. "Most people when they think about what they want to do as a career, they don't think of business and owning their own business, but more think as an employee. And I think this should be introduced into more schools just to open up to more students some ideas."