The bark beetle infestation in California's forests has been devastating, resulting in the deaths of millions of trees.

But what if three students at Stockdale High School could make something beautiful — and profitable — from this environmental tragedy? And at the same time help clear the dead trees, which are wildfire hazards, from the forest?

Enter Kamaal Walker, 17, Mikhail Ocampo, 18, and Jeyrik Poduga, 17, three Stockdale High seniors headed to the Virtual Enterprise program’s Social Venture Challenge at a posh location: Cipriani, in New York City. 

It turns out the wood from trees killed by bark beetles often ends up with a unique blue stain embedded in the wood, offering an attractive accent to the pine surface.

"We are one of only three schools nationwide in the Virtual Enterprise program to be invited to present at the 2019 Gala Dinner on April 17," said Brian Devitt, the Virtual Enterprise teacher at Stockdale.

That means third place is the worst they can do. But Walker, Ocampo and Poduga are not going for third, they're shooting for first place, which comes with a $10,000 prize to be used as "seed money" for their startup, Phoenix Wood.

The team met Thursday evening for a final rehearsal at the home of Mike and Claudia Stepanovich, who have supported the team as advisers and coaches. The students were scheduled to leave on a red-eye for New York on Friday night.

"This is the natural discoloration left by the bark beetles," said Walker as he and his partners displayed three wine boxes in one-bottle, three-bottle and six-bottle sizes. The company motto, engraved below the logo, is "Impact with Style."

Even though the wood is sourced from dead trees, the strength and structural integrity of the wood remains intact, Walker said.

"It can be used in any application pine is used for," he said.

At the beginning of the year, during a brainstorming session, it was Paduga who threw out the idea of using beetle-killed trees to produce wood products, as a way to respond to the wildfire epidemic the state has experienced, Devitt said.

Over weeks and months, that germ of an idea has been developed into a real business. Unlike Virtual Enterprise, which utilizes "Monopoly money" and is based on concepts and projections, this business is becoming real.

The company's website,, won first place at the state trade show. Their video commercial for the business finished second at the same competition. Their business plan team finished in fourth place.

"While at the state trade show, the president of Virtual Enterprise saw our presentation and invited us to compete in a newer competition, the Social Venture Challenge," Devitt said. "Three companies nationwide are given an opportunity to present at the annual Gala Fundraising dinner, where (500) seats are going for $600 a plate."

At the dinner the three students will present their idea to a group of panelists in a "Shark Tank" like environment.

In this pressure-cooker situation, the students will have two minutes to make their pitch, aided by PowerPoint images.

But on Thursday night, they didn't look nervous.

Devitt credited the Stepanoviches for stepping up and working like a business partner with the students. Dave and Melody Spalinger, of Skyline Cabinetry, formed the pieces for the decorative boxes. And as a group, they came up with an idea to bring a virtual business to life.

It's a team effort, much bigger than the three core students.

Fellow VE student Lauren Hawkins came up with the name, Phoenix Wood. Like the mythical bird, this wood is rising from the ashes.

Another student, Liam Balinger, did the laser work in designing the boxes.

As the students ran through their presentation, they explained their target customers are vineyards and wineries across the state.

The winery customers, they argue, will view beetle-killed pine as a public benefit by removing trees that act as tinder in wildfires. By harvesting them and turning them into a beautiful box, the students hope to convince the judges they are offering their vineyard customers a product using a sustainable resource that has an environmental benefit.

"These students are extraordinary," Mike Stepanovich said. "They're creating a real business.

"The reward is seeing their success."

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

(1) comment


Great concept. Good luck in NYC and have a blast. Bring home the hardware! 🥇🏆

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