(Emily Zhang, pictured top left with teammate Peter Liu)
The experience that ‘transformed my view on what business can be’
Her parents wanted her to become a business owner. She fought against the idea. After a friend persuaded her to join a high school competition, Emily’s future interests spanned beyond just science and art.
Moving from Chicago to State College, Pennsylvania at a young age, the woodsy and isolated Northeast landscape became consistent comfort for Emily Zhang. Throughout her childhood, the arts provided a haven for creative exploration, despite her parents’ encouragement to pursue business to make personal connections.
She recalls, “I was indifferent about entrepreneurship. I didn’t really understand how interesting it could be. I thought it was just stereotypical business business business, money, finance, and paying taxes.”
With her laser-focused interest in the sciences and arts, entrepreneurship didn’t seem like a viable path for Emily, until one summer when her friend Peter had a proposition she wasn’t expecting. Despite living one hour away from each other, they formed a strong friendship. While Zhang was hesitant, doubting if the opportunity would be worth her time, she took the call anyway, trusting Peter’s persuasive personality. Liu shared his novel idea – a device that would reduce bacteria and infection in dental offices – hoping Emily would join as his teammate for the upcoming Diamond Challenge competition. After hearing Peter’s compelling pitch, she felt like the entrepreneurship experience just ‘happened’ to her.
“I was interested in trying new things and going outside of my comfort zone. Because it [the idea] had a technology background, that’s what initially interested me.”
Although technology sparked initial interest, it was the entrepreneurship process that made her stay. She became invested in research, idea generation, marketing, advertising, and product development processes, all initially foreign concepts to Emily that ultimately matched her interests perfectly.
While going through the process, Emily surprised herself, realizing entrepreneurship isn’t just for students who have experience or are interested in business. “Any skill that a person can have can be useful for entrepreneurship. You can be good at it even if you’re not familiar with the field.”
Zhang also experienced the problem first-hand after walking into a dentist’s office mid-pandemic. After seeing her dentist wear three masks and a face shield during her routine check-up, she recognized how uncomfortable and uncertain people are when it comes to dental office safety.
“I felt so bad, but it’s something they have to do because there’s nothing else they can do to help with sanitization.”
While some dentist offices have existing suction units, they are unpopular because of the cost, noise, and square footage. Emily and Peter realized their idea was something that could change the market and make dental offices safer. EVAC, Extraoral Vacuum Aerosol Cup, attaches to the saliva ejector to prevent the spread of disease and bacteria. After months of analysis and prototyping, EVAC became a tangible concept. They were ready to share their work with virtual judges.
Before Emily’s entrepreneurship experience, public speaking wasn’t a strong skill. As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, Zhang wanted to make sure her EVAC pitch was flawless, and Peter was counting on her to execute every pitch. After recording 100 pitches, she learned how to annunciate, maintain a good pace, and eventually “got the perfect one”.
After competing against 5,000 students from around the world, and gaining feedback from two judge panels, Emily and Peter advanced to the semifinal round, where they participated in a week-long virtual Summit with 80 teams.
“I was so surprised how many people came together to solve issues presented in the world. It’s unbelievable to see how many high school students want to make a change in the world and want to make a better future.”
Peter and Emily entered the competition with no expectations, hoping to receive judge feedback and experience. Unexpectedly, they won first place in the business innovation track, securing $8,000 in follow-on funding.
For Zhang, the experience was worth more than prize money. “What I gained the most was being confident in myself. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes or failing.”
Now as an all-state violin player, math competition qualifier, tennis athlete and artist, she can assume her newest title – high school entrepreneur.
Since the Diamond Challenge ended in April, she pursued one of her previous fears. This summer, Emily led a 15-girl physics camp to promote female STEM interest, teaching for two hours each day. Zhang credits Diamond Challenge with helping position the camp for success; She leveraged competition learnings to advertise and design website and flyer content for her latest passion project.
“I strangely felt competent and calm about it. I wasn’t worried about speaking in front of 15 people.”
Although her future is uncertain, because of her Diamond Challenge experience, she is interested in pursuing business to help people with irregular heartbeats reduce infection and surgery recovery time.
(Emily’s Instagram @emi.lyart artwork produced this summer, captured above)
“Before, I might have brushed past it [problems] if it didn’t involve me or affect me. I wouldn’t think about what to do to make a change. Now, if I see a problem, I know how to solve it.”
The Diamond Challenge is for any teen from any location with any idea, and registration and submission are completely free. The competition opens in September 2021 and closes in January 2022. Follow @diamondchalleng on Instagram and TikTok to see how the experience can help you identify new passions just like Emily did.
Zhang, E. [@emi.lyart]. (2021, July 18). born 🔅 [Instagram photo]. Instagram.
Zhang, Emily. Personal interview. 21 July 2021.
About Horn Entrepreneurship
Horn Entrepreneurship serves as the University of Delaware’s creative engine for entrepreneurship education and advancement. Built and actively supported by successful entrepreneurs and thought leaders, Horn Entrepreneurship empowers aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs as they pursue new ideas for a better world.