Student Essay Contest $3,000 First Prize

2021 Essay Contest Winners

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The American Business History Center is proud to introduce our first annual Business History Essay Contest for High School Students.

This is a chance for students to learn about businesses and how they are built, that they are human ventures and have human stories and attributes.  Big businesses grow from small seeds.  Even right where you live.

The contest is open to anyone residing in the United States who is between the ages of 12 and 18.  Submissions should be between 1,000 and 2,000 words.  Winning entries will tell the history of a business based in your city, county, or metropolitan area.  The business must be at least ten years old and have at least ten employees.  But it could be anything from a giant corporation to a local restaurant or hotel.  Any for-profit business, in any industry, qualifies.

The deadline to submit is 11:59 pm Pacific Time, Friday, July 9, 2021

To see the contest rules, our tips on writing a winning essay, and the form for submission, keep reading!  Please Contact Us if you have any questions.

Prizes

FIRST PLACE: $3,000
SECOND PLACE: $1,000
THIRD PLACE: $500
15 HONORABLE MENTIONS: $200 each

Winners will be announced in September 2021. For the complete rules, see below.

Contest Rules

Submission Deadline

11:59 pm Pacific Time, Friday, July 9, 2021

Essay Topic

Each essay should tell the history of a company in the writer’s home city, county, or metropolitan area, within the United States or its territories. The company must be based there, not a branch office or owned by another company. The company must be at least ten years old and have at least ten employees, but may also be much larger.

Essays should tell the story of the organization since its founding, its products or services, how the company evolved, and who leads the company today. The best essays will point up the drama and human-interest aspects of the story. When available, the essays should contain data on the company, such as sales or number of employees and the growth of the company over time.

Essays may contain pictures of the products, factories, offices, and people.

For this first year, we are not accepting the stories of non-profit organizations, though we hope to add that category in future contests. 

For complete suggestions on writing the essay, see the “Tips for Essay Writers” below.

Eligibility

The contest is open to writers aged 12-18 at some point during the contest period (March 4 – July 9, 2021). Only one submission will be accepted for each essay writer. Writers and the companies whose stories they tell must be located in the United States or its territories, and all submissions should be in English. Any person or organization involved in the operation or judging of the contest and their immediate family members are not eligible for this contest.

Essay Length

Essays must be 1,000-2,000 words in length. Submissions that do not meet this requirement, or that exceed it, will be disqualified.

Deadline

Essays must be submitted no later than 11:59 pm Pacific Time, Friday, July 9, 2021.

Plagiarism

All essays must be the original work of the student whose name is listed on the submission form. Plagiarism will result in immediate disqualification.

Taxes

Winners will be solely responsible for any federal, state, or local taxes on winnings.

Judges

Essays will be judged on their ability to tell the history of a company in an articulate, clear, factual, and engaging manner. Our panel or panels of judges will evaluate essay submissions in a fair and unbiased judging system. Decisions of the judges are final.

Ownership and Use

The ownership of any submission remains the property of the writer, but entry into the competition constitutes the entrant’s permission and consent, without compensation, with or without attribution, for the American Business History Center to use, reproduce, transmit, post, distribute, adapt, edit, and/or display the submission.

Formats

Use the link below to submit your essay.

We accept essay submissions in the following formats:

  • Microsoft WORD Document (.Doc, .DocX)
  • PDF Document.

For users of Google Docs, use the export function to create one of the above formats (In Google Docs go to File -> Download as -> Microsoft Word).

If you have any problems or questions, please contact us and we will do our best to help.

Tips and Guidance for Researching and Writing a Business History Essay

The following notes are comprehensive thoughts on writing great business history stories.  We do not expect you do to all of these things, they are just ideas.  If you did all of them, you would be a better writer than most people who write books on these subjects!  The only absolute requirements for essay submissions are those listed above.  These are just possibilities that might trigger your imagination or give you some ideas about how to approach your essay.

The first step in writing the history of a business is to do the research, to gather all the information.  Many of the companies we write up on the American Business History website are no longer around, so we have to use old books and articles for our information.  But the companies you will be writing about are still active and alive, so you can combine online and other research with personal interviews.

First Step

You can get a sense of what a good company history reads like by looking through the many articles on the American Business History Center website.  Some good examples of short business histories like we are asking you to write include:

https://americanbusinesshistory.org/same-town-same-family-the-smucker-saga/

https://americanbusinesshistory.org/the-little-soft-drink-that-could-the-pepsi-story/

Online and other research

The first step is to learn as much as you can about the company before you interview anyone.  It is important to know as much as possible before you interview anyone.  You want to be prepared, you want to ask good questions, and you do not want to waste their time fumbling around.

Start by finding out if the company is “public” or “private.”  Almost all smaller companies are private, most big companies are public.  A public company is one in which anyone can buy part ownership (stock) in the company, on the stock market.  A private company has no public stock, and might be owned by one person, by a family, or by a group of investors or an investment company.

The quickest way to find out of if a company is public is to type into the Google search box the name of the company followed by the words “investor relations.”  So you might type in “Apple Investor relations.”  If the company is public, a link to an investor relations site should pop right up, at or near the top.  Go to that link to find out a tremendous amount of information on the company.  The latest annual report is a good place to start.

If you Google for investor relations and nothing pops up, then it is a private company.

But even private companies often have websites.

Whether public or private, Google the company and see if they have a website.  Most do.  Look for “About Us” or “About the Company” or “About Apple (or whatever the name of the company is).  Often, within that part of the website, or somewhere else on the website, you will find “Our story” or “Our history.”  That is a great place to start your research.

The bigger and older a company is, the more information about their history can usually be found.  Look on Amazon for books about the company, or check your library.  Search the internet as much as possible, with terms like “Ford history” (if you are studying the Ford Motor Company).

See if you can find out who started the business, when it was started, and any other information about their history.

You may also find newspaper articles online about the company.

In your research, you will come across people’s names, perhaps the founder or the person who runs or owns the company today.  It has been said that all history is biography, so the more you know about these people, the better.  Google their names to learn more.

Wikipedia is sometimes a good source of this information, but also sometimes they get it wrong and nobody fixes it.  Anything you see there should be checked with the company if possible.  For big and old companies, you can often find Wikipedia articles both on the company and on the founder or some of their executives, past and present.

Approaching a Company

If the company is a public company or a large private company, they probably have a public relations department.  They are usually the best place to reach out at first.  If there is no public relations department, try to find the marketing department.

If the company is smaller, why not try to talk to the owner or the top person, usually called a CEO (for “Chief Executive Officer” or the President, but sometimes the General Manager or other person.

Interview as many people as you can.  While the “higher” in the company the better, often others in a company may know more about the history.

Telephone, email, or even a handwritten or typed letter can be used to reach out.

If you do not succeed in setting up an interview, you can either keep trying or pick another company to write up.

In approaching a company, make sure to tell them why you are doing it, that you are a student and you want to enter this essay contest and have a shot at winning a nice prize!

Always demonstrate as much enthusiasm and passion for the project as you can.

 

Interviewing

A face-to-face interview is best because then you can watch the person’s reactions and get comfortable with them. If you do interview them in person, make sure and observe social distancing, wear a mask, and follow the health guidelines required by the circumstances.

The next best option is a zoom call, because then you can still see them.

And after that, a phone call, or last on the list is an email conversation in which you send them questions which they can answer.

Any of these methods can work, as long as you get the information you need.

Make notes on everything you learn, no matter whether from interviews or other research.

You can also record interviews if you get permission from the person you are interviewing.

Keeping good notes and recordings will save you a lot of time and agony later on.

 

What to Ask

Make up your list of questions before doing any interviewing.  It will save you time and save the person you are interviewing time.  And you will come across as a lot smarter if you know what to ask!

Try to first use publicly available resources to answer your questions.  That way you can make the most of interviewee’s time.  You can re-confirm whatever you find during the interview.

  • You will be writing up the history of the company, so the starting point should be its founding.
  • Who started the company?
  • When did they start it?
  • Why did they start it?
  • Were there already companies in the same industry or doing the same thing?
  • Did they see an opportunity that others did not see?
  • What was different about their idea or product or service?
  • How did they finance the startup?  Bank loans, personal savings, selling stock to others?

Then, we want to understand how the company evolved over time.

  • What were the major milestones in the company’s history?
  • Milestones can be new product introductions, new factories or offices in new cities, serving new groups of people or entering new cities or states, major inventions, change of ownership, or anything else that seems important.
  • When did these milestones take place?
  • Why did they take place?

Always ask,

  • What were the worst things that happened to the company, what were the hardest times?
  • What were any failures the company had?  How did the company deal with them?
  • What were the best things that happened to the company?  The greatest successes?

And since this is all about history, always make sure and ask “When?”

Learn as much as you can about the company’s products, services, facilities (stores and plants), advertising and marketing, innovations and inventions, and most of all, what makes them different from their competitors?

In most companies, it is important to know who their customers and suppliers are.  They may only sell to men, or to rich people, or make products for one other company.  A chocolate maker might buy all their raw chocolate from one company.  They might have partnerships with other well-known companies.  They might be a franchise for McDonald’s or a car dealer for Toyota.  Ask about any such relationships that are important.

Find out what you can about the company’s culture.  This is a big part of what makes companies different from each other.  Some are really all about selling, others all about customer service, others focus on inventing cool new stuff or services.  Some are well known for treating their employees well and some are known for being good citizens of their community by helping others.  Your research before the interviews should give you clues on which of these things are important to the company.

We also want to know where the company stands today.

  • Who owns it? Is it public or private?
  • Who manages or runs it – sometimes that is different from who owns it.
  • Which companies or businesses are their main competitors?
  • How is the company different from its competitors, what differentiates it and its products and services?
  • How is the company different from when it started?
  • Is it owned by the same family?
  • Does it have the same principles and goals?

How big is it?  The main measure of size is the annual sales or revenue of a company.  If the company is public, it is easy to look up.  If it is private, you probably cannot find out that information, but it does not hurt to ask.  I usually say, “You don’t have to answer this, but can you tell me about how much your annual sales are?”

If you cannot learn how much the company’s sales are, the next best question is “How many employees do you have?”  Most companies will answer this.

Profits are very important.  Again, if it is a public company, that information is easy to find.  The annual report has sales, profits, and a great deal of other information, including “segment” data which tells you which parts of the company are biggest and make the most profits.

If the company is private, it is best not to even ask about profits, as very very very few will share that information, it is considered confidential.

The more of this financial and numbers data you can get, the better.  Both current data and past data.  If a company has grown from ten employees to five hundred, that is worth noting (and celebrating!).

As you interview someone, don’t “step on” their answers by asking the next question too soon.  Make sure they say everything they have in mind.  Sometimes they will have to take a moment to think about it.  Sometimes it is good to “probe” – which means, ask the obvious follow-up question.  If they say, “We decided not to do that,” ask, “Why did you decide not to do that?”  And so on.

Always end your interview with two key questions:

What other questions should I be asking, is there anything else you think is important?

And

Who else might I talk to at the company to help me write up my essay?

 

After Research and Interviews

The first thing to do once you have compiled all this information is to make sense of it.

What struck you as most interesting about the company’s story?

What surprised you?

Whatever you found interesting or surprising will also likely be something your reader (or our judges) will find interesting or surprising.

Review all your notes, organize them.

I usually take a sheet of paper, or type on the computer, and list out all the key ideas, the most important stuff I learned.

Then I start moving those things around, forming a “story.”

Take the time to think about all this.  I usually “meditate” on it for a few days before I start writing.

 

Writing Your Essay

In composing your essay, it is best to combine the mindset or thinking style of a reporter with that of a movie maker.  Think of yourself first and foremost as a storyteller.

A reporter gets all the facts right.  They double check them.  They make sure there are no errors or typos in what they report.

The movie maker is more interested in drama, in cool stories, in engaging the viewer (or, in our case, the reader).  How can I connect with them and their lives?  Does this company serve thousands of people every day (whether with sandwiches or smartphones)?  Are their products world famous, or even famous all over one town?  Have celebrities used their products?  Has the company ever made headlines, good or bad?

You may have heard an old line about sports, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

Companies, their owners and their leaders, experience the same types of things.  They take risks with their money every day, they try new things.  Some work, some do not.  Some difficulties are very hard to bounce back from.  Sometimes success is its own worst enemy, because the company gets complacent or arrogant.

Where is their drama in your story?  How can you make it feel like a movie, like an exciting novel, but not lose track of the facts?

Pulling together all the facts without being boring, making the story engaging without twisting the facts, is a challenge only you the writer can figure out.

That is why great writers are so successful and so rare.

While we do not expect you to be a great writer at your age, the better you are at it, the more likely you will win one of our prizes.

In telling the story, the best way to do it is chronologically.  Start at the beginning and end at today.  That makes it easier for people to follow and read.

Sometimes in our stories, we write a short introductory paragraph which is an overview of the story, something like “This company started one hundred years ago and almost went broke but today is number one in its industry.  Here is the story.”

And we usually end with a summarizing paragraph along the lines of “So you see that this company is one to be admired because of their consistent product quality and famous brand name for over eighty years.”

When we write introductory and summary paragraphs for the start and end of a story, we write them last, after writing the whole “body” of the story, so we can look back over it and pull out the key points for these two paragraphs.

Whether you do those two paragraphs or not is up to you and depends on how much space you have and still fit your story in our length limits (1000-2000 words).  But if you do include them, they are important because they are what gets the reader interested at first, and what remains in their head when they finish.

Also be aware of your paragraphing, which is an art in itself.  Make sure each idea has its own paragraph.  Error on the side of shorter paragraphs rather than long ones; shorter ones are much easier to read.

Above all else, always try to put yourself in the shoes of the reader, of someone who has never heard of this company before.  Will they learn something from your essay at the same time that they are engaged, that they enjoy reading it?

Adding pictures and even little tables of data can add interest to your essay.

It is often a good idea to write more than you want and then trim it.  That is usually better than writing too little and then trying to add more later.

Finalizing Your Essay

Make sure the essay is at least 1000 words but not more than 2000.

Read it out loud!  You will find things to fix that you cannot spot any other way.  Does your language sound natural, like humans talk and think?

Spell and grammar check it?

Read it over and over, looking for typos and errors.

Have a few family or friends read it, and get their input and ideas, and any mistakes they find.

You can even run it by the people you interviewed, as an extra way to make sure you got the facts right.  But you alone are the writer and your own editor, so do not make any changes you are not comfortable with.

Our last step is always to put a title on the story.  Try to use words that will draw readers in, make them want to read the story to learn more.

And good luck!  We at the American Business History Center look forward to reading your essay!

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