Stockdale High School senior Kamaal Walker stood atop the stage with his teammates Wednesday night and looked out across the beautiful ballroom filled with close to 600 of Manhattan's movers and shakers, CEOs, investors, businessmen and women.
The venue, Cipriani's on Wall Street — yes, that Wall Street — looked unlike anything Walker had ever seen.
"Oh, my God, I cannot even describe the feeling," said the 17-year-old. "I was just fascinated looking at the faces in the crowd."
Then he heard ... silence, and realized he'd missed his cue, but only briefly. He and his team were making a two-minute business pitch to a panel of high-powered judges for an academic competition called the Social Venture Challenge. They were pitching their business, which they'd dubbed Phoenix Wood.
On the line was a first-prize award of $10,000.
Walker obviously did just fine. By the time the night was over, the few seconds of silence mattered not.
"The judges only deliberated about five minutes," said Mike Stepanovich, a local volunteer who helps coach and guide the students.
"The judges came out and said, it's Phoenix Wood," said Stepanovich, who admitted he was getting goosebumps just recalling the high-pressure presentation and the night's triumphant conclusion.
Walker and his teammates Mikhail Ocampo, Jeyrik Paduga and Samir Mody had bested the other top-2 teams nationwide — from Tampa, Fla. and Long Island, N.Y. Only three schools in the Virtual Enterprise offshoot were invited to present at the 2019 Gala Dinner," said Brian Devitt, the Virtual Enterprise teacher at Stockdale.
"The response to the idea was tremendous," Devitt said. "It was an incredible experience for the kids."
A pressure-cooker experience. The judges critiquing their presentation were Helen Avery, finance editor for Euromoney Magazine; Robert Hawley, CEO of BNP Paribas; Jeff Raider, CEO of Warby Parker; and ESPN basketball analyst Jay Williams.
Maybe the students have a million-dollar idea on their hands.
Paduga came up with the early concept of using trees killed by bark beetle infestations and drought to produce wood products as a positive way to respond to California's wildfire epidemic, Devitt said.
The wood from trees killed by bark beetles is often imbued with a unique blue stain embedded in the wood, offering an attractive accent to the pine surface.
Eventually the students settled on using the wood to make wine boxes, which are often used by wineries to highlight their flagship wines. Unlike Virtual Enterprise, which utilizes virtual money and is based on concepts and projections, Phoenix Wood is becoming real.
"They were super excited," Devitt said of the first-place award. "It has obviously produced a lot more questions than answers in terms of where we go from here."
Stepanovich said the team has done Bakersfield proud. They represented their school, the Kern High School District and Virtual Enterprise with distinction.
"I could not be more happy for them," he said.
There's a lot of credit to go around, Walker said. Stockdale High's entire Virtual Enterprise class of about 28 students participated. While only four teammates could go to New York, and only three could participate in the pitch, the months-long evolution of the company involved the efforts and ideas of the entire class.
"All of them contributed to Phoenix Wood," he said. "It really was a team effort."