The owner of Charlie's Cheap Chicken restaurant was worried about falling behind in his monthly bills, so he sought good, sound business advice from an unlikely source -- three Ellicott City high school students.
The 16-year-old students -- David M. Kulansky, Alifia Poonawala and Josh E. Tobin -- flew to Orlando, Fla., to help the fictitious owner save his fictitious restaurant in a national competition for students interested in business careers.
In Florida this month, the three Centennial High School juniors placed fourth in the annual entrepreneurship competition held by the 270,000-member Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA).
"We're perfectionists. We were kind of hoping for first place," said Josh.
Alifia, who suggested that the three enter the competition, said, "I was pretty confident we would place in at least the top five."
The students, who competed against nine other teams from around the country in the finals of the entrepreneurship event, had a few assets: They have known each other since fourth grade, and David, competing alone, placed first in the regional and third in the state versions of the business competition last year.
But there was a potential liability: No member of the team has taken a business course.
"They have a fantastic combination of talent," said Celia V. Carr, who works for the Howard County schools' Office of Educational Technology and chaperoned the team to Orlando for the competition.
The three students made up for their lack of formal training with independent study.
They studied business magazines given to them by Mrs. Carr and textbooks from David's father, Michael, a business professor at University of Maryland University College, all the while doing their regular school work and engaging in other extracurricular activities.
Josh is a wide receiver and cornerback for the Centennial High football team, Alifia mentors at Cen- tennial Elementary School, and David belongs to math and science clubs.
They said that participating in their high school's FBLA chapter -- the only active one in the county -- helped their chances at the competition. So did having family members who are involved in business, they said.
"Most of our business knowledge comes from our families," said Alifia, whose father is a land developer in Virginia. She is considering studying international law at Georgetown University.
Josh, whose grandfather is an accountant, said he plans to earn a business degree from Harvard University. David said he might go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study engineering, law or business. His mother operates an invitation business from the Kulanskys' basement.
The students earned a berth in the national championship by placing second in the regional competition and first in the state. Each state sends one team to the national championship.
In the nationals, they placed in the top 10 in the first stage of the competition -- a 100-question written exam about various business topics -- before advancing to the final stage.
In the end, they had 20 minutes to review a case study of a failing business -- Charlie's Cheap Chicken -- then present their solution in 10 minutes to a panel of judges.
"Our solutions were based on sound business reasoning," David said. "We know our business."
Nearly 6,000 students from around the country participated in 20 business-related competitions at the annual gathering in Orlando. The four-day meeting included business seminars and leadership training, along with excursions to Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.
The Howard students said they were looking forward to attending next year's national competition in Washington.