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Business competition a test for students and teacher

Advisor Cheri Sheldon, who is battling cancer, is accompanying Business Academy team to April competition

A winning project has grown into a meaningful lesson for some seniors at Costa Mesa High School.

Five students are heading to a national competition in New York City in April, and for the first time in three years, their teacher, who has battled stage 4 cancer since 2012, will be with them.

The teenagers are enrolled in the school's Business Academy, a three-year program that teaches entrepreneurship, finance, marketing and more. As part of the lesson, students created a virtual company, Go-Tect, and put their skills to work finding customers and paying bills.

The business plan for Go-Tect, which sells wearable GPS-enabled devices, took second in a statewide competition in December.

Now, the five teenagers behind the business plan will be pitted against roughly 100 teams from across the country. Teacher Cheri Sheldon will cheer them on.

Sheldon's presence makes the contest "more meaningful," said team member Jeirany Chavez, 17. "She's like our mom."

Nearly three years ago, Sheldon learned that she had cancer. The diagnosis came a week before that year's Business Academy students were set to fly to New York to compete.

Sheldon said she told her doctor she was taking the trip, but his response was "oh, no you're not," Sheldon said.

"She keeps thanking us for a second chance to go to New York, but honestly she deserves the thanks," said Jeirany, who is Go-Tect's chief of internal affairs.

Teaching "real world skills" was the reason Sheldon started the Business Academy 20 years ago, she said. A teacher for 29 years, Sheldon describes herself as a "hands-on kind of person," and believes that students learn by doing.

In New York, the five seniors will face a panel of judges consisting of Wall Street financiers and business experts. As part of the competition, they will present their business plan and answer questions before an audience that numbers in the hundreds.

Mike Milchiker, who teaches the Business Academy class with Sheldon and one other teacher, said students regularly spend nights and weekends at work on their virtual company.

Sophie Nguyen, the team's chief financial officer, said the students have incorporated feedback from the judges in the statewide competition. Sophie said the Costa Mesa High team has strong odds of placing in the top 10, and perhaps even in the top five. In the last five years, Business Academy students have reached the nationals four times.

Sheldon continues her battle against cancer. She said the students have supported her through rounds of treatment. This trip is significant for all: "It's kind of like their comeback and my comeback."

nicole.shine@latimes.com

Twitter: @NicoleKShine

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