We all know that persistent, pinching pain that inevitably comes after only an hour or two wearing a new pair of heels—the kind of agony that makes you wonder if the fashion is worth the sacrifice.
Having attended many school dances, Lake Forest High School (LFHS) junior Julia Hender was no stranger to this torture.
While modern culture has brainwashed us to believe that “beauty is pain,” Hender and her business partner classmates Konrad Ziaja, Lino Caputo, and Ella Witmer are ready to dismantle and disrupt that outdated way of thinking.
When the team was challenged to develop a solution to a problem they’ve faced in their lives, as part of the “ideation” phase of their Business Incubator course last fall at LFHS, the girls in the group recalled wanting to slip off their shoes as soon as they hit the dance floor.
The group decided their mission would be “to make beauty synonymous with comfort,” designing a modular shoe that can quickly and easily transform from a heel to a flat and back again. And if you think that sounds like sheer perfection, consider the name—Heaven N’ Heels.
“From there, we just ran with it,” says Hender, Chief Financial Officer of Heaven N’ Heels.
Business Incubator is an honors level course taken by roughly a quarter of LFHS juniors each year. In the fall, students are assigned to groups based on their individual strengths and tasked with forming a startup business of their own. Throughout the year, they are guided by mentors from the Lake Forest community who have experience in the business world.
Out of dozens of groups, only four had the opportunity to present their product to investors at the recent Pitch Night competition. During Pitch Night, each group makes their case in front of a panel of judges as well as adults from the community for why their business should receive the $10,000 of funding provided by the LFHS Foundation, or additional funding provided by outside investors.
And while Heaven N’ Heels didn’t ultimately win the competition, interest in their product was enough for the group not to give up on their dream.
“After working super hard all year, I feel like we gave the best pitch we had so far. So obviously, it was tough and came as a shock to the people on our team,” says Hender, confirming that the group of LFHS juniors will persist. “The first thing we will do next year is form an LLC to make us an official business.”
Interest in a Heaven N’ Heels shoe is undeniable. Results from 329 interviews showed that 100 percent of the women thought it was a great idea. However, 53 percent said they would pre-order a pair, but only if they had an example of the final product in front of them.
Creating a professional model in time for Pitch Night was a challenge, so they went to the competition with a version of the show made by the group’s engineering specialist Conrad Ziaja. Through many rounds of trial and error, Ziaja, who is also a CAD Engineering student, created a prototype of the design using LFHS’s Makerspace and 3-D printer.
“We believe that was what was missing from our Pitch Night presentation,” Hender says, explaining that they would put their own money into developing that crucial starter inventory in hopes that an investor will follow.
The group has also turned to other means of fundraising, starting a gofundme.com page to help “bring their business to life.” So far, they’ve raised $1,055 of their $4,500 goal. The team will continue developing their business next year in LFHS’s Business Accelerator course, along with their newest ambitious addition—Connor Higgins.
Besides the typical startup experience of struggling to earn confidence and commitment from investors, the co-founders of Heaven N’ Heels face some obstacles which other entrepreneurs do not. Many of the people they contact initially assume they’re much older than they are.
“We often hear, ‘we love this idea, what business school do you guys go to?’” says Hender. “People think it’s cool that high school kids want to start a company, but the uncertainty of what will happen when we go to college is something they worry about. But the whole team is very dedicated.”
And it’s a good thing they are.
Pitch Night falls right between the conclusion of AP exams and the beginning of final exams, making it a very busy time for students in the Business Incubator class. Motivation is key.
“If you go into it with a positive attitude, it feels more like fun and less like work,” says Hender.
Her advice to future students in this course is to “try to choose a product you’re passionate about … and if you’re not passionate about the product itself, find an aspect of the company that you are. The people who look at it like work get the least out of it.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that out of all the courses Hender has taken throughout her high school career, she counts Business Incubator as the one she learned the most from.