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Boss for a year

Can we spark students' interest in becoming entrepreneurs? That's what the YES (Young Enterprise Switzerland) company program aims to achieve. Participants from all across Switzerland spent one year hard at work, and on 25th–26th May the final was held at Zurich central station. Noémie Sasse, CEO of the commercial training program, led us through the exhibition, which has become almost as trendy as a Food Fair this year.

Does salt lead to victory? The chances seem pretty good. Three young enterprises have been working with almost nothing else over the past twelve months. They had to come up with a successful product concept (Hawaiian volcano salt, hand-produced Vaud salt, or perhaps a Swiss gourmet salt blend?), draw up a business plan and manage the accounts and marketing.

Today, one day before the grand final, the 25 best young entrepreneurs are once again giving their all. In Zurich central station, they are introducing themselves, their products and services. Strolling through the exhibition with Noémie Sasse, we look at pasta with varied flavourings, spice mixes, coffee, risotto, flavoured soft drinks... all organically manufactured. You could easily believe that YES is a food fair. «True», laughs Sasse. «Five years ago, it was backpacks. Then there was a year where several groups focused on printed shirts. And now with the general trend towards sustainable, regional foods, that's naturally showing up for us too.» We want to take a closer look, and stop to visit Cilia, Luca, Sereina and the two Ladinas from Salerva. «We sell Vaud mountain salt with herbs from Grisons», explains Ladina Lochner, who is responsible for the mini-enterprise's finances. «We wanted an easy-to-manufacture regional product that we could introduce to the market. Plus, salt always gets used, so there's a constant demand. And last but not least, we also wanted to develop a product that could be used as a gift.»

Talking to the students, you realise just how thoroughly their entrepreneurial activities have been thought through. No wonder – after all, they've been working on it for about ten hours a week, adjusting and readjusting flavours, refining the logo, establishing supplier relationships, and setting up the online shop. «It's a lot of work», admits Ladina Dürst, CEO of Salerva. «But we had great support. Firstly from our teachers, and secondly from our 'Godfather', a coach who is an entrepreneur himself and therefore knows the specifics of commerce from his own experience. » The young entrepreneurs also learn the basic essentials of their business at workshops and training courses provided by supporters such as Swiss Prime Site.

It sounds too good to be true. Were there no moments of doubt, no setbacks? «Oh, yes», acknowledges Cilia Kessler, responsible for administration at Salerva. «At first we printed labels for our herb salt with an error on. It said on the labels that the salt comes from the Valais, but it's from Vaud. That was very annoying, but ultimately good too. We learnt from it.» It's easy enough to get over these things, when the highlights predominate. Salerva was regional winner for eastern Switzerland, netting them a place at the European trade fair in Lithuania. «A real highlight», all five agree. And now they aren't just in the final – they have also been nominated for the special award in the sustainability sector.

«With our Company Program, everyone is a winner – but it's also a competition», explains Sasse as we move on, «and of course the overall performance gets evaluated. That is to say: How does the enterprise appear to the outside? How is the supply chain organised? How coherent is the business plan? And last but not least: Is the financial planning well grounded in reality? The jury includes nine individuals from commerce, plus a technical college lecturer and three alumni. For excellent performance in a particular area, there are also Special Awards.» One of these is given by Swiss Prime Site for the best Marketing & Sales and concept. Head of Event Management at Swiss Prime Site, Nicole Stamm, explains: «We take plenty of time and look closely at all the finalists. It's still completely open at the moment.»

We're standing in front of Vincent, Kai, Armel and Marc's stand. Their business idea: hand-made tagliatelle with different flavourings, the packaging adorned with the likeness of a famous person from Zurich's history. Regional ties form a central selling point for ZüriPasta. And it has proved popular. «We made up 200 packets of pasta for our stand at the Christmas market», we are told by Marc Bartels, CTO of the mini-enterprise. «We could have sold twice that. Which is great, of course. But at the time we were just annoyed by our planning error». They have made up for it, though, as ZüriPasta is now available in the Jelmoli FOOD MARKET. The four students from Kantonsschule Hottingen were also given the chance to hold a tasting there.

Experiences that the students are already learning from, the better to avoid later. «The main goal is to let our young people experience commerce and to teach them relevant skills», explains Sasse. «So our students establish real businesses, with real products and services that have to hold their own on the market. And they can also find out where their strengths lie and then guide their career development into these directions. Some of them will become self-employed later on, or take charge of a family business. All our alumni have learnt to think and act entrepreneurially, which is valuable in any kind of work or company.»

Alumni – that's what former program participants are called. And Noémie Sasse herself is one of them. «Back then, in 2006/2007, I and my group developed a diary including a cover», she explains, and laughs: «Somewhere in the attic there's probably a prototype still lying about». During her studies in education, she worked for YES and, while still there, was asked if she could picture herself taking on leadership of the organisation. She could. Since then she has supported thousands of students through their year as entrepreneurs. What do you particularly like about it? «It's always freshly fascinating to see how the students develop as individuals. At the beginning, they're often unsure of themselves, and now here they are, convincingly selling their products.» Asked about her favourites this year, Noémi Sasse hesitates. «No... No, I really can't decide that now», she says after a pause. «Especially this year, we've got a really strong, wide peak.»

On the evening of the 26th, following two long, strenuous days of exhibiting, the decision is made: the winner is ZüriPasta. This isn't just down to the excellent sales figures and their solid sales network. The jury was also impressed with their strong presentation, the products' clear regional origins, and the enterprise's organisation.

The competition for the award for «Best Marketing & Sales», sponsored by Swiss Prime Site, was won by the students from Heilig Kreuz College in Freiburg, and their mini-enterprise «Epices vo hie» («local spices»). The young entrepreneurs produce spice blends based on traditional Swiss recipes, with names like «Chrütlischwur», «VacheEcht» and «Grüenzüüg» that have been handed down through generations. They sell their products online, at markets, and in delicatessens in the Freiburg area. They also include suitable recipe ideas with every blend of spices. Their online presence and attractively designed packaging and marketing material won the judges over with a consistent, contemporary design. This also helped to provide a professional framing for the «Epices vo hie» blends and formed the foundation of their product presentation and presence at the fair. «Their clear product offers, the passion and commitment of the students, and the diverse business activities are all exemplary», says Markus Waeber, Head of IR & Corporate Communications at Swiss Prime Site. «We're delighted to support up-and-coming young talents. That's why we're one of YES's major sponsors.»

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