Michael Cao

For 17-year-old Michael Cao, putting theory into practice has helped him start a promising JA company and given him a head-start toward his goal of becoming an entrepreneur. Cao, who will be a senior this fall at Mounds View High School in Arden Hills, Minnesota, served as the CEO for a JA Company called Solupal last year, which won the JAUM Minnesota Company of the Year competition. For his efforts, Cao also received the Otto Bremer Student Entrepreneur of the Year award for Minnesota, which included a $1,000 scholarship.

“I’ve always been interested in science and technology,” says Cao. “I was looking at laundry detergent pods one day and thought, ‘That’s a really smart way to use dissolvable plastic packaging!’ And I started to wonder if there were other ways to use that same material?” That idea led Cao and his teammates to found Solupal, which sells environmentally friendly, water-soluble shopping bags to help limit rampant plastic waste. Using the same technology as laundry pods, the company created bags made out of polyvinyl alcohol, which quickly breaks down to common elements when submerged in water.

Cao says that JA definitely helped nurture his interest in entrepreneurship. After first participating in the JA Company program as a 9th grader, Cao became intrigued with the idea of building his own business. Last summer, he decided to attend an entrepreneur-focused summer program called MIT Launch on the Massachusetts college campus to learn even more. “Both of my parents are research scientists and they have been very encouraging of me in JA and studying entrepreneurship,” Cao says. “As immigrants who came here initially for graduate school, my parents gave me a lot of freedom to explore all sorts of interests and opportunities. After being a part of JA and gaining entrepreneurial skills, I can open the gates to many different ways in which I could generate an impact.”

With Solupal, Cao has had an opportunity to put many of his entrepreneurial ideas into practice. “JA really taught me and our entire team how to adapt in a business setting,” Cao explains. “At first, we tried to offer our bags to thrift stores, since they are all about reusing materials, but our initial minimum viable product was expensive because we were producing in low volume.” That realization helped his team narrow their customer focus to environmentally responsible, high-end clothing boutiques, who proved receptive to the company’s products. “We know that if we continue to scale this business, it will bring per-unit costs down,” Cao adds. “We’re definitely continuing with our company next year. In addition to winning JAUM Company of the Year, we also were a global finalist for the MIT Launch Club program. Out of over 1,000 teams that participated, we were one of 21 selected to fly to MIT for a final pitch event. MIT Launch is actually providing our JA Company team with up to $5,000 in seed money to help us continue the business.”