DifferenceMaker Introduces Students to Innovation Hubs in Lowell, Haverhill

Five female students present a Tinkertoy creation they built, one of them is holding a microphone Image by Ed Brennen
A team of Lowell High School students present their design-thinking project during a recent visit to the Innovation Hub at 110 Canal Street, hosted by the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute.

By Ed Brennen

Lowell High School senior Breudi Castillo is focused on starting his own business. For the past year, with help from an aunt who works in the industry, he’s been building a company that sells car audio equipment.

“I didn’t know how I felt about going to college,” he says.

A recent field trip to the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub with 50 Lowell High classmates gave Castillo a new perspective, however, showing him how a college education can provide the skills and resources he needs to achieve his entrepreneurial dreams.

“I can see college as a big help,” says Castillo, who had never visited his hometown university before the field trip, which was co-sponsored by UML’s Rist DifferenceMaker Institute and Project LEARN, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching the education experience in Lowell Public Schools.

“I’ve seen the UMass Lowell buildings from the outside, but this is my first time having an introduction to it. I think it’s great. I could definitely see myself here,” he says.

Introducing area high school students to the “entrepreneurial ecosystem” at UML was the purpose of the field trip, according to DifferenceMaker Director Holly Lalos.  
Four high school students in blazers hand out samples of the energy bar they are pitching to judges Image by Ed Brennen
A team of students from Essex North Shore Agriculture and Technical School hand out samples of their ZuMix product to judges during their winning pitch at the DifferenceMaker High School Idea Challenge in Haverhill.

It’s also why the Innovation Hub on UML’s Haverhill campus hosted a dozen students from three other high schools for the third annual DifferenceMaker High School Idea Challenge. Students pitched their business ideas before a panel of judges for $1,000 in prizes.

Rising to the Challenge

The Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School team of Mya Doucette, Gaby Guimaraes, Zach Medailleu and Gabriel Olafsson earned $500 for their winning pitch of ZuMix, an energy-boosting snack for busy teens. 

“I haven’t been here before, so it’s nice to see,” says Doucette, a native of Rockport, Massachusetts, who has already applied to UML’s criminal justice program. Her teammate Medailleu has applied to the computer science program.

The four competing teams were all part of DECA, an international organization that prepares high school and college students for business careers and entrepreneurship through conferences and case-study competitions.

The teams pitched to five judges: State Rep. Andy Vargas, Massachusetts DECA State Advisor Donna McFadden, and three DifferenceMaker alumni — Katie Harrington ’17, ’20, co-founder of Ambulatory Innovations; Siddhant Iyer ’20, founder of TrueFIT; and Tatiana Tompkins ’21, creator of Protected Pin and NoSno Mat. 
A young man in a baseball cap and face covering talks to a young woman at a table while two other young men look on Image by Ed Brennen
Benji Ball co-founders Benjamin McEvoy, left, and Edward Morante talk to Westford Academy students about their DifferenceMaker experience following the Idea Challenge in Haverhill.

“It’s amazing to be able to speak in front of all these distinguished people and feel what it’s like to be an entrepreneur,” says Westford Academy senior Morgan Smith, whose team earned honorable mention for I&M Solutions, an alternative to orthodontic braces.

Westford Academy teacher and UML alumna Gina Mustoe ’92 worked with the DifferenceMaker program to launch the high school challenge four years ago.

“We are so blessed to have a school like this in the community with so many incredible programs,” says Mustoe, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and whose son, David, is now a freshman plastics engineering major at UML. “Sometimes our students want to get out of Dodge for college, but there’s this gem right here around the corner that they need to pay attention to.”

After the pitch competition, the high school students sat down for roundtable mentoring sessions with five former DifferenceMaker teams: Benji Ball (Benjamin McEvoy and Edward Morante); Digital Life (Smriti Kumar, Alejandra Luna Juarez, Amy Nguyen and Tina Thuy Ngugen); Green Fertilizer (Benard Tabu and Visal Veng); Smart Escape (Noah Boudreau and Kevin Healy); and Terminus (Eliot Pirone and Ariel Shramko).

Opportunities Abound

During the Lowell High visit to iHub’s 110 Canal St. location, students heard from two DifferenceMaker alumni: Rajia Abdelaziz ’16, co-founder of smart jewelry and accessory company invisaWear, and Tyler Cote ’18, co-founder and director of Operation250, a nonprofit that educates children, parents and teachers about online safety.
A large group of high school students stand around a table covered with sewing materials and listen to a woman speak Image by Ed Brennen
Lowell High School students tour the Fabric Discovery Center at 110 Canal Street.

Provost Joseph Hartman, meanwhile, explained how DifferenceMaker brings together students with different strengths and backgrounds in a collaborative environment.

“The reason we’re up the street (from Lowell High) is to give you all a chance to do what Rajia and Tyler have done. We want you to be successful in anything that you want to do, to help make the world a better place,” Hartman said. 

The students, who were mostly seniors from entrepreneurship and retail marketing classes taught by Jill Taylor, took part in a design-thinking exercise with Tinkertoys and toured the iHub’s third-floor coworking space and Fabric Discovery Center.

“There’s so much more here than any of them really know,” says Taylor, who has taught at Lowell High for 25 years but was bringing her students to the university for the first time. “I don’t think they realize these opportunities are right outside their door.”