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Young Achievers: His mind brims with ideas

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  • Meet Rishi Kulkarni

    Age: 10.

    School: Providence Day.

    Favorite magazines: Wired, Make, Popular Mechanics.

    Favorite dessert: Sugar cookies, “with extra icing and sprinkles.”

    Best books he’s ever read: The Jaguar Stones series, by Jon and Pamela Voelkel.

    Favorite president: John F. Kennedy.

    Dream college: Stanford University.

    Favorite sports team: Barcelona soccer team.



About a year ago, Rishi Kulkarni stopped by the Charlotte Startup Weekend – an entrepreneurial conference that awards winning projects – with his father on their way to a football game.

The two Kulkarnis observed different adults pitching business ideas.

“He watched other people do it, and he said, ‘You know what? I want to pitch an idea on the spot,’ ” said Rajeev Kulkarni, Rishi’s father.

And in the next few minutes, Rishi presented an idea about selling digital images of objects that could been magnified 400 times with a new microscope he recently got from his father.

Rishi’s idea didn’t make the cut, but this year, he knew he wanted to pitch and develop a winning idea.

“This time I was actually prepared,” Rishi said.

The preparation paid off: The 10-year-old and his team finished second at Charlotte Startup Weekend’s most recent conference, at the end of January.

Rishi said after brainstorming with his father, he came up with the concept of a website that helps smart high school and middle school students improve their chances of admission to their dream college.

The website, called Wiz Kids Draft, would show them what academic and extracurricular endeavors they should get involved with, based on their interests. It would also provide a profile that universities could use to recruit talented students early.

“It’s a LinkedIn for kids,” Rishi said.

After pitching his idea to more than 100 adults, conference participants – all adults – chose Rishi’s idea and six others out of 40 to 60 pitches to be further developed during the weekend, said Jim Van Fleet, a co-organizer of Charlotte Startup Weekend.

For the rest of the weekend, Rishi, his father and four conference participants who chose to help them worked to develop Wiz Kids Draft as a viable business.

Teammate Chad Stachowicz, who has his own startup educational company, said he wasn’t sure what to expect from Rishi.

“I was surprised by his knowledge of what a business cycle is with him being so young,” he said. “Rishi was pretty good on outlining the goals of the team.... He actually did quite a lot.”

At the end of the weekend, Rishi presented the Wiz Kids Draft project’s final version to the adults, and it received the second highest number of votes from participants.

Van Fleet said he was impressed by Rishi’s initiative and work.

“I thought it was great. It shows perseverance,” he said. “You don’t always see that out of children. ... I think it’s definitely inspiring.”

Rishi said he really enjoyed the experience.

“It was not scary,” Rishi said. “It was rather fun. It’s more efficient than working with a group of kids because everyone knows a lot more.”

He said he learned that teamwork and communication skills are key. “And you need to be very patient, because sometimes it takes a while to be successful,” he said.

Rishi has a piece of advice for his peers who have their own great ideas: “Don’t just let it sit. Do something with it,” he said.

At the startup conference, Rishi’s team won office space and memberships to places like the Business Innovation and Growth Council and Queen City Forward.

The team will meet to discuss how to divvy the prizes and how to move forward with the project, which Rishi wants to do, even though some teammates estimated running such a website could cost between $1 million and $2 million. Rishi said the group determined Wiz Kids Draft would be a nonprofit and would apply for grants and other funds.

Rishi credits his dad with his love for technology and entrepreneurship. Rajeev Kulkarni is vice president and general manager of 3D Systems, a company that uses computer programming to create objects out of plastic with 3D printers. Kulkarni, who has a handful of patents under his belt, created and launched Cube, the first home 3D printer, and www.cubify.com, a social platform for creating in 3D.

Kulkarni has also been one of the city’s most active angel investors since the family moved to Charlotte in 2007 from California.

He and his wife, Kavita Gupta, make every effort to expose Rishi and his 8-year-old brother, Rithik, to new experiences and technology, she said.

Rishi said his dad has been taking him to his workplace for years, and he’s always loved the big machines there that create new plastic objects.

The Kulkarnis also have a 3D printer at home, and Rishi said he enjoys making new creations with it, including toys, miniature castles and a slingshot.

Recently, he’s taken apart a broken 3D printer and is now toying with its different engines.

The Kulkarnis put a strong emphasis on the importance of education and are constantly thinking of new ways for their sons to be creative and learn, Gupta said.

“You need to be able to stretch your boundaries,” she said. One way she’s done that for Rishi has been to sign him up for summer camps he didn’t initially want to attend but ended up loving – like at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, or for learning hip-hop dance.

Rishi has notebooks full of ideas, which his father had him start when he was 8. His notebooks – he’s on his third, a black leather-bound one – are brimming with ideas that have been illustrated, labeled, described, dated and signed by two witnesses. Rishi said he typically updates his notebook every other day. Rajeev Kulkarni said he gives the boys a quarter for each new idea.

Kulkarni said he’s proud that his son’s idea made second place at the Charlotte Startup Weekend.

“I had doubts whether it would be picked,” he said. “But he was so engrossed in it and totally enjoyed the experience.”

Rishi’s tinkering doesn’t surprise his fifth-grade teacher at Providence Day School, Debra Nagy.

“He loves many challenges, especially anything involving new ideas and creativity,” Nagy said. “Being inside the box is not something he likes to do.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294; Twitter: @lruebens
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