In 2017, a quiet, 15-year-old young man from Naples entered the Taste of Immokalee (TOI) summer internship program.
It was the first time the youth entrepreneurship program expanded to include students outside of Immokalee, Florida, made possible by a grant from the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation. Breaking down the invisible boundaries that separate some of the State’s wealthiest and poorest communities, that summer marked a milestone for both the TOI program and for the 24 impressionable minds that would learn to run and operate a business alongside peers of differing socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
That young man was Sai Rachumalla. Now, after four years with TOI, Sai is graduating from Naples High School and likely heading off to an Ivy League campus in the fall to study at one of the country’s top engineering schools, with a particular interest in transportation engineering.
Sai’s list of accomplishments throughout his education years in Collier County are impressive. President of his school’s Academic World Quest team (2020 regional champions, 2019 medalists), a National Merit finalist, finalist in Collier County’s Spelling Bee, recognition at the State Science and Engineering Fair, a perfect ACT score and a 5.98 GPA, just to name a few. But as Sai reflects, he shares “academics have always been my strength and I was comfortable being a bookworm. But Taste of Immokalee has brought me out of my shell and taught me that there is more to life than books.”
TOI gave Sai the opportunity to put all that knowledge into practice. As he learned about entrepreneurship and became involved in the business operations behind Taste of Immokalee, Sai and his peers learned how to apply their years of classroom learning to the real world. For example, math skills are applied as the students learn to manage finances in Quickbooks, determine breakeven points and profit margins and calculate the most cost-effective shipping methods.
Sales and marketing are also integral components of the entrepreneurship program. Sai gained confidence to step out of his comfort zone and speak in public about the program and promote products at sales events throughout the community. TOI students have the unique opportunity to learn and practice both the technical and soft skills needed in today’s job market, including the ability to solve problems and collaborate with peers, customers and partners.
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Students learn not only what it takes to run a successful, profitable business, but also the importance of becoming responsible corporate citizens (something that has been particularly eye-opening during the Covid-19 pandemic). Taste of Immokalee is a social business that creates a line of salsa and sauce products using fresh, locally sourced ingredients for the sole purpose of giving back to the impoverished community of Immokalee. Products are sold online, in select local markets and over 240 Publix stores in Florida, with all profits returned to Immokalee to support student scholarships, youth programs, alleviate hunger and respond to crises.
In addition to his academic awards, Sai will graduate high school with impressive business accomplishments, like being part of a team that brought new products to market (like the favorite Pineapple Mango Salsa) and grew sales and distribution channels to achieve triple-digit growth rates.
Executive Director of Taste of Immokalee, Marie Capita, reflects on the growth she’s seen from Sai throughout his TOI involvement. “I remember when Sai entered the program. He was a quiet observer, taking everything in but would not speak unless he was directly asked a question. Sai has grown so much that he was one of our spokespersons during a national media interview with PBS NewsHour last summer. Watching our students flourish through the program is the best part. Sai is among those students who took advantage of everything TOI has to offer. The rewards will last a lifetime.”
Sai agrees. “When I first joined, I had no idea how much this program would both challenge and benefit me. I’ve been able to design new products, receive mentorship, learn how to network and market myself, and even got to meet famous NFL players. The experience has transformed me into a more confident, creative, and strong-minded individual, all which have prepared me for college. And if I start my own company one day, I’m already two steps ahead.”
Sai’s college choice has not yet been determined. He is currently evaluating acceptances from Cornell, Princeton, University of Florida, University of Central Florida, Vanderbilt and UCLA. (Where will he decide? Join Taste of Immokalee on social media to be the first to know – that’s where Sai will make the big reveal!)
Is Ms. Capita surprised at these options? “Not at all. I am so proud of Sai and all of our students. Our graduates are fully prepared for success in the real world, whether that be college or in the workforce. When they come to TOI, they learn to dream – they discover career possibilities and where their talents and interests can be applied. When they stick with the program and seize every opportunity like Sai and others have, they gain the foundation needed to achieve those dreams.”
Sai’s story is just one of many success stories from Taste of Immokalee students. To continue impacting young lives in our community, this unique youth entrepreneurship program relies on the support of grants, sponsorships and donations through our nonprofit, Taste the Impact. Please consider joining our efforts to ignite dreams and change communities.