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Rheisen Dennis has had an enterprising streak since he was little boy.
As a 5-year-old, Dennis drew a picture on a paper restaurant placemat, then drew a dollar sign next to it, his father, Jameel, said. The boy told his parents he intended to sell the piece.
The elder Dennis secretly gave their waiter a few dollars to purchase the drawing, and immediately saw a change in his son.
“The light that went off in his eyes, I knew that was something that was going to stick with him forever,” he said. “He enjoyed the concept of making something of value to others.”
Now, the younger Dennis is one of two Albemarle High School students who this summer will receive $5,000, legal assistance and mentoring from the W.L. Lyons Brown III i.Lab at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
Dennis and Tyler Cosgrove, both 17-year-old seniors at AHS, will be the first-ever high schoolers accepted to the i.Lab, which helps nascent businesses get off the ground.
The pair are developing a phone app that will allow users to try on clothes in a store, scan the barcode and purchase the items online. The idea came to Dennis while trying on clothes in a department store.
The teens plan to use the money from Darden to purchase licenses to program their software, take courses and develop a marketing and sales strategy.
“What we are looking to do is add the advantages of retail shopping to an online marketplace,” he said. “When you go shopping at a retail level, you’re able to try on clothes and see what fits, and we think that’s a really big advantage we are trying to add to the online marketplace.”
Dennis and Cosgrove met while attending engineering classes at Albemarle High’s Math, Engineering and Science Academy. They first connected over a love for computer programming, Cosgrove said.
“We were both kind of the two kids who were programming while the others were building things,” he said.
Dennis and Cosgrove’s venture is one of two dozen selected for the summer program, said i.Lab Incubator Director Jason Brewster. From June to August, the pair will have access to the i.Lab’s 9,000-square-foot North Grounds workspace, be matched with a mentor and have legal assistance from the UVa School of Law.
The program is designed to give a leg up for budding businesses, Brewster said.
“Our effort here is to level them up, to accelerate them through that 10-week period that they would otherwise not have the resources to do,” he said.
Dennis, who plans to attend Northeastern University in the fall, first connected with the i.Lab through an entrepreneurship workshop at AHS. He also has worked with several companies that have nurtured ideas at i.Lab.
The workshop, organized by AHS gifted-resource teacher Alexis Mason, is designed to connect students with local entrepreneurs who can mentor them as they develop and pursue business ideas.
“I really feel that entrepreneurship is a life skill,” Mason said. “The things that we are putting emphasis on, in terms of math, science, technology and in terms of students being prepared for college, are great, but I don’t think they actually help build some of the skills the students really, really need to be resilient in the workplace.”
Through the workshop, Dennis met Adarsh Ramakrishnan, a UVa engineering alum who, along with some classmates, founded a small design firm before graduation.
Ramakrishnan quickly began mentoring Dennis, who picked up his lessons quickly.
“He is a sponge,” Ramakrishnan said. “When he wants to understand something, he reads book after book after book.”
Cosgrove’s tech-savvy industrious streak had a quieter start.
“Tyler, all the way through MESA, has been a tinkerer and always working on stuff, but he is very quiet about it, he doesn’t say what he is doing,” his father, Todd Cosgrove, said. “[The app project] was somewhat of a surprise to us. We didn’t know he was working on it with [Dennis].”
For the older Cosgrove, the key to success was to stand back and encourage.
“I am more here just to support and watch them grow, and excited for them, rather than giving them leadership,” he said. “It’s more of a proud parent than mentor, I think.”
Whether Cosgrove and Dennis’s app makes them the next tech celebrities, their mentors are convinced their future is bright.
“They’re both getting started,” Brewster said. “It’s not going to be the last we hear of either of them, regardless of how the idea plays out.”