PITTSBORO — Savannah Matthews has always been an entrepreneur.
At 6 years old she was outside Bynum Front Porch selling lemonade and cookies to anyone who would stop and buy. She’s kept up that entrepreneurial spirit through high school, and now has an opportunity to show off her skills to people from across the world.
Savannah will be in Orlando, Florida, from April 22-25 to compete in the 2023 DECA International Career Development Conference. DECA prepares high school and college students who are identified as emerging leaders and entrepreneurs for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management around the globe, according to its website.
In Chatham, the organization has chapters at Northwood and Jordan-Matthews high schools. Savannah will be the only student from Chatham County Schools to attend the conference, which typically draws more than 20,000 students from around the world.
During freshman year, Savannah was thrown into the deep end of the DECA waters. She didn’t compete in the district competition, so her first time competing was at the state level.
Her assigned event included taking a 100-question test and multiple role-play activities in front of judges about how to better sell a children’s meal. As daunting as that may sound to some, Savannah was instantly hooked.
The thrill she felt from that competition led her to apply to be an officer in the school chapter her sophomore year. That year, she placed 10th in the state competition.
Last year as a junior is when, in her words, “it really took off” for Savannah. She won first place in the district competition and third in the state, including a top-20 score in the country for her event. The finish was good enough to land her a spot in last year’s nationals competition.
Now, as a senior at Northwood High School, Savannah, 18, is the president of the school’s DECA chapter. She said she enjoys bringing people into the chapter and watching them grow throughout their time in DECA.
“For some people, I’ve seen a huge change in their personality since they joined,” she said. “Once you start competing you see how you can apply things to other aspects of your life and break out of your shell.”
And her fellow members aren’t alone in that transformation — it happened for Savannah, too.
Back when she first walked into the classroom where the DECA meeting was being held, the shy freshman was in awe of the leaders who stood boldly in front of the room and talked eloquently about competing and showing off their marketing skills.
“Oh my gosh, I don’t know anyone here and this is so intimidating,” she recalls thinking. “I would rather crawl in a hole than present in front of that many people.”
Now, Savannah is the person leading those meetings.
She’s helped the chapter recover to 35 members from its dip in membership due to Covid-19 and gotten them more involved in the community through clothing and food drives.
At the national competition, Savannah will compete in Quick Serve Restaurant Management Series (QSRM), the same event she’s done since freshman year. The event includes the 100-question test and the role-playing exercises. She said she’ll be leaning on her previous experiences as she prepares for the big stage.
“It’s a big, big opportunity and commitment,” Savannah said. “And I don’t want to let anyone down by not doing well.”
But that previous experience in this event, and her previous trip to nationals, comes with a pressure to do well this time around. While she’s honored by the opportunity, this time she’s coming to win.
Savannah will be competing against the top six finishers in the QSRM event from each state along with several competitors from other countries — meaning she could be competing against more than 300 people.
“I’m feeling really nervous, but I’ve put in a lot of work and practice,” she said.
This year, Chatham County Schools purchased access to DECA+, a software with previous tests and example prompts, which Savannah has been using to practice for nationals. The software also provides feedback and tips along with performance indicators on the prompts.
Thanks to fundraising efforts by the school, district, local businesses, several organizations and a GoFundMe set up by Lesley Landis, who is a board member with Chatham Arts Council, Savannah will be able to take the trip to Orlando. The GoFundMe rasied more than $1,400 toward travel expenses and other needs.
“Savannah is a truly remarkable young woman,” Landis said. “That’s why I decided to help fundraise for her trip.”
Beyond DECA, Savannah is also a stellar student. She is a member of the Northwood Spanish Honor Society, senior-class president of the student council, and on the Homecoming Court. She is also a member of the varsity swim team, and this year is the team’s co-captain. Outside of school, she has also been a Girl Scout for 12 years and volunteered with Sen. Natalie Murdock’s (D-Dist. 20) campaign prior to her election in November. Matthews was also recently selected as a Senate page for Murdock
“It involves a lot of planning,” Savannah said of her schedule. “I don’t have a ton of free time, but what makes me happy is doing a bunch of stuff — getting involved and being productive.”
When she encounters challenges or pressure from her overwhelming schedule, she turns to her personal motto: just persevere.
The phrase started as a cheesy joke between her and her friends, but now it’s a phrase her peers associate with her hard work and dedication.
“Even if it sucks, you just gotta keep on working,” she said. “And eventually you’re going to get to a better point than where you are.”
Savannah hopes to pursue a future career in marketing after receiving a degree from a four-year university, using the skills she learned in DECA to succeed beyond her academic career. She said the business world “just makes sense” to her.
“I like seeing how society is able to function with the macro- and micro-economics sectors,” she said. “There’s all these interactions of companies and people in the government. It’s just kind of like a fun triangle that you get to see.”
Those interactions, along with her enjoyment of being in charge are skills she sees as serving her well in the future.
Anyone who meets Savannah would also say it’s evident she’s a people person, something her mom said she’s had ever since those lemonade sales at Bynum all those years ago.
“Anyone that knows her from age 3 to age 95 and they would all say the same thing,” her mother, Lesley Matthews said. “She goes above any or everything to improve our county and eventually our world.”
People and leadership skills in hand, Savannah hopes to take home a medal for Northwood and Chatham County at the end of April.
“I want to prove I can succeed,” she said. “And show other people they can succeed too.”