R&I’s Innovation Mentorship Program is back spotlighting high school students’ unique business pitches

'The Marketing Collective' team with panel of experts


The 1988 comedy, Big, featuring a youthful Tom Hanks, includes the tagline – you’re only young once! After wishing to be made big, a teenage boy wakes up to find himself in the body of an adult.

Minus the wishing and magic, the Grade 11 business students at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School got the chance to ‘think’ big and impress a local industry partner through Research & Innovation’s (R&I) Innovation Mentorship Program.

After a successful pilot in 2023, the Innovation Mentorship Program is back and a real hit. It’s a way to foster a culture of innovation at the secondary school level. R&I partners Niagara College (NC) classes with a similar high-school level class and runs the projects side by side with the same industry partner. The NC students get the opportunity to mentor the high-school students, helping them grow their leadership skills. The goal of the program is to expose high-school students to college-level experiential learning, while also getting them familiar with the overall college atmosphere, ways of learning, and more.

“With the success of the pilot last year, we knew we had something special with the Innovation Mentorship Program. Not only do the high school students get to engage in a real-world business project, but they also get exposed to what life is like in a post-secondary atmosphere,” said David DiPietro, Manager, Business Development with R&I.

Plus, when you get a repeat satisfied collaborator like David Vandermolen, Business / Math Teacher at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School, wanting to participate again in the program, you know you’re doing something right.

“As teachers who understand the value of experiential learning, we’re always looking for ways to get kids out of the classroom and into the real world, so this program with R&I is the perfect fit,” said Vandermolen.

He shared that engagement levels are very high with hands-on programs such as this one because students feel like they’re actually doing something impactful and learning something that a textbook can’t necessarily teach them.

And the demand for this program through the District School Board of Niagara is high. Six years ago, there were about 10 classes focused on business and marketing and now its up to 18. There’s also interest from other school to participate, so the future of the Innovation Mentorship Program has room for growth.

“We know our students are going to be ready for post-secondary education when they participate in programs like this. They can grow their resumes and if given opportunities like this, they usually take them and succeed,” added Vandermolen.

“With the success of the pilot last year, we knew we had something special with the Innovation Mentorship Program. Not only do the high school students get to engage in a real-world business project, but they also get exposed to what life is like in a post-secondary atmosphere.”

 David DiPietro, Manager, Business Development with R&I

For this year’s case study, David brought on industry partner Tom Nitsopolous, General Manager, Holiday Inn Parkway Conference, to work with the students.

“Community involvement is important to our company, so when David reached out to participate in this program, we were on board,” said Tom.

Tom and his team are currently working on the construction of a new “long stay” hotel in St. Catharines. They tasked the students with coming up with marketing strategies to generate interest and awareness in the hotel, specifically targeting contractors working on jobs in the city.

Four teams were selected to present for Tom and the esteemed panel of experts, including Robert Madronic, Professor in the School of Business & Management Studies; Sarah Godfrey, Research Lead with the Business & Commercialization Innovation Centre, and David DiPietro, Manager, Business Development for R&I. Robert’s NC entrepreneurship students also acted as mentors for the high school students, helping them work on these pitches.

The Marketing Collective, comprised of students Ava Gray, Karys Lipoysky, Liam Collins, and Jack McNeil, took the top spot, receiving some free NC swag as an added bonus. The team came up with innovation solutions for the Home2 hotel, including a comprehensive trade show strategy which targeted construction and contractor companies, as well as a points card which would incentivize companies and their employees to return back to the hotel. The team went the extra mile to seek out which trade shows would be happening and when, while also contacting local app developers and card companies for quotes on their points card idea.

“The students did a great job and came up with creative ideas, and really focused on our target audiences. Their presentation skills and design abilities impressed me, and this program gets them comfortable with a real-life business and what goes into it,” said Tom.

“This program created collaborative experiences not only with our classmates but with someone in the industry. It’s also been very useful for our future if one of us wants to go into business in post-secondary. It’s been eye-opening to get a firsthand look into the industry,” said Liam.

“It was really cool to get to work with a real industry partner and build on our communications and presentation skills,” Ava added.

“Programs like this help set us up to be successful in our post-secondary education because we get real-world business experience,” Liam added. “We have to apply our skills to a real business challenge and get creative to come up with solutions.”

Now that they’ve had a taste of winning and what the business industry can offer, most of them said they were going to consider studying business in post-secondary. Tom had this advice for those students who are going to pursue a career in business: “You have to work hard; it really comes down that. You have to take risks and be solutions oriented. If you put in the effort at the beginning of your career, the fruit from the trees will come with time.”

For the teachers, they’re happy to know that their students will know what to expect at a post-secondary level. “This program also gives them a familiarity with Niagara College and gives the College staff the opportunity to really pitch their school to prospective students, so it’s a real win-win” he said.

If you’re an educator and want to participate in future iterations of the Innovation Mentorship Program, contact David DiPietro, Manager, Business Development, at [email protected]