Dubuque student’s business idea gives back

A common annoyance became the foundation of Emma Belken’s business plan.

After hearing from people irked when the pads in their sports bras came out in the wash, Emma decided to fix that problem by stitching the pads into the bras. While she was at it, she figured she could use proceeds from sales to support breast cancer research.

“I felt like those two kind of tied hand in hand,” said Emma, a senior at Wahlert Catholic High School in Dubuque.

She will pitch her business on a national stage today during the Young Entrepreneurs Academy 12th annual Saunders Scholars National Competition. The contest features 36 students from middle and high schools around the country promoting their business ideas.

“I know I’ll be competing with a lot of these other amazing business ideas, but I’m excited to get my idea out there,” Emma said.

She developed her business — called Stitch Together — through the Dubuque chapter of Young Entrepreneurs Academy, which is sponsored by Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce. Through the program, she came up with an idea for her product and developed a business plan.

“Starting a business is going to take a lot of work, but the instructors definitely help you through it and made sure that you knew what you were doing,” she said.

After landing on the idea to build a better sports bra, she decided to distinguish her business by donating part of the proceeds to Wendt Regional Cancer Center at UnityPoint Health-Finley Hospital. Each bra also comes with a tag sharing the story of a local breast cancer survivor.

“My parents have always taught me to give back to the community, so I thought if I can make this a successful business, I want to be able to give back to those who need it most,” Emma said.

She pitched her idea to judges at a chapter-level competition, winning $1,200 and a spot in the national contest.

She used her winnings to purchase sports bras and start her stitching so she hopefully can start selling them after the competition is over.

Justine Paradiso, marketing and program manager for the Dubuque chamber, said the Young Entrepreneurs Academy helps students learn confidence, public speaking and creativity. Emma not only started with a solid product idea, but she also found a way for her work to make an impact, Paradiso said.

“It was a great idea, and then she had something that speaks to a lot of people because there are so many people who are impacted by cancer,” Paradiso said.

Emma said the process helped her learn communication skills and adaptability, and her skills in developing a business will help her in her eventual career as a dentist.

“A lot of those dentistry offices, they start their own business, so I would have to look into something like that,” she said.