Humans of St. Thomas introduces us to some of the incredible members of the St. Thomas community. Read about more of our fellow Tommies here.
When Amy Helgeson was in the fourth grade, she discovered her love of problem-solving while participating in a robotics program. In seventh grade, the Shoreview native vowed to start her own business before she graduated from Mounds View High School. By the time she was ready to receive her diploma, Helgeson had created Skyrocket, which brings entrepreneurship to senior citizens. She was also part of a six-person team who created Solupal, a water-soluble and eco-friendly alternative to traditional plastic bags. Both businesses were part of 2018’s MN Cup, with Solupal making it to the finals in the youth division.
Helgeson’s creative problem-solving skills and genuine enthusiasm for any challenge thrown her way helped earn her a Schulze Innovation Scholarship from the Opus College of Business Schulze School of Entrepreneurship. Now a first-year student at St. Thomas, Helgeson is settling into college life and taking advantage of new opportunities, including participating in her first Fowler Business Concept Challenge.
We caught up with Helgeson at Scooter’s for a chat about everything from being an entrepreneur to traveling aspirations.
Who has been the biggest inspiration in your life?
Phyllis Helgeson, my grandma. The ideas she had were so fascinating to me. It was interesting to see the way people interacted with her and how she handled that. Many people were not excited about her ideas and they scoffed at them and brushed them away when she was a senior citizen. I want to be the person who listens to seniors and realizes they do have valuable things to say. She is a big inspiration. She passed away this past January; I did Skyrocket in memory of her. That’s part of what is fueling me to make this succeed and why I want to be even more involved with helping seniors.
Tell me about Skyrocket.
I started Skyrocket at the beginning of my senior year of high school.
I was talking to my grandma that summer and she told me she didn’t feel like she had a sense of purpose anymore. She was in an assisted living center and said each day was the same as the last. She wasn’t excited about anything – she hated bingo, wasn’t into gardening. She felt like she didn’t have a community.
Hearing that really pained me because my grandma was someone I always looked up to. She was someone I resonated with because she loved innovating. She had these grandiose ideas; I get my entrepreneurial side from her.
I began to think about how I could use my skills and talents to create something she would like and value. Our first product is an entrepreneurship course for senior citizens. Entrepreneurship is so purpose driven – it has given me so much purpose. I thought about how it could be used with senior citizens.
In the future, I hope to be able to work with senior citizens and host a pitch competition – they would submit a four-minute video pitch showing their product and I would fund it. That is way down the line. I also want Skyrocket to be more than an entrepreneurship class. I want to be a curriculum provider with classes that are going to excite seniors and not be your typical bingo or card games.
What is your biggest fear in life?
That I am not fulfilling my purpose. I believe that every single person has a purpose, and I want to make sure that I am using my skills and talents to the best of my abilities. I want to make sure I am going toward the right path. There have been a few times when I think, “Is entrepreneurship the way I should go? Is this really what I should be doing?” Then all of a sudden, something will happen or a senior will come up to me, like Jim, who is 94 years old. On the very first day I had the class, he came up to me with tears in his eyes. He hugged me and said how thankful he was someone was there for them and wanted to spend time with them [senior citizens]. I knew I was doing something that mattered then. I was like, “OK, this is what I need to do.”
If you could have dinner with any famous person, who would it be?
A little bit controversial, but Elon Musk. He is just so fascinating, the way his brain works. Do I always agree with everything he says and does? No. But I do think the ideas are there and I think he is moving us in a direction that is going to be more environmentally conscious and that is going to push technology. I would love to pick his brain and see what he thinks about things in the world and how he would change things.
If you had a Saturday off and you could do anything, what would you do?
Most of my Saturdays I spend volunteering, but if I wasn’t doing that … I don’t know how to not do anything! Like if I see a problem, I’m going to fix it. I love thinking of new ideas and just putting myself in different situations and thinking about what I would do differently. I love reading. I read a lot of business books written by entrepreneurs. I guess I would read more; that’s something I’m trying to do more of. I’m also trying to start a business book club at St. Thomas.
Where do you volunteer?
I volunteer a lot with High Tech Kids. It’s Minnesota’s first robotics affiliate partner. Robotics influenced my life tremendously; it’s the reason why I’m here today and why I know what I want to do. I go there and work with the kids ranging from kindergartners to seniors in high school. I’m a judge and volunteer at tournaments. I look at how the kids work as a team and I evaluate them. It’s pretty fun. I’m also an emcee, even though I hate public speaking! I call out what different robots are doing on the board, so that’s pretty fun.
What’s the last app you downloaded for your phone?
A Year in Pixels – it’s like graph paper, and you assign a color for how the day went. It’s a way to kind of track the different days. For entrepreneurs, there are so many highs and lows. I want to see where that goes.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
Croatia. In middle school I saw pictures of it and found it fascinating. It is so beautiful and the culture is really cool. I am going to be taking a J-Term class in India for social entrepreneurship and I’m excited about that. Hopefully, I’ll be going to South Africa in the summer of 2020. There is an internship program there and I think that would be amazing.
What’s the last TV show you binge-watched?
I love “The Office.” It’s my guilty pleasure. I can quote pretty much every episode. I’d love to start an “Office”-watching club here at St. Thomas.
What character do you identify with on “The Office”?
I love Jim and how he’s just so funny and charismatic and he can connect with anyone. I also try to connect with people. But then you also have Dwight, who’s just a hoot-and-a-half and always causing trouble. Not that I cause trouble, but I’m a little bit distracted sometimes.
Is there a question you wish I would have asked you?
One question I get a lot is about the false perception of entrepreneurs. A lot of people have come up to me and said, “You shouldn’t be an entrepreneur; they’re just in it for the money.” Some people have this idea that people who are going into business don’t want to do things for the common good, that they just want to do it to better themselves. I’m just trying to change that perception. I’m trying to prove to people, as an entrepreneur, I can do something that’s really going to benefit our community and that’s going to go beyond just me. I don’t want to be the focus of attention – I want to have my work shine and to have other people positively impacted.