UCI freshman Crystal Sanchez was honored at the White House for winning the 2015 National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge with her Guardian Locket, which she’s wearing here. Chris Nugent / UCI

What started as an A-plus from a high school teacher culminated Wednesday, Nov. 25, with an opportunity to meet President Barack Obama.

Crystal Sanchez, a business economics major in the School of Social Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, was invited to visit the White House by the Office of Science & Technology Policy because of her first-place finish in the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship’s 2015 National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge. Her invention: a necklace equipped with a panic button and GPS capabilities to alert authorities in case of sexual assault.

“Within the span of 24 hours I flew across the country and shook hands with one of the most influential political figures,” Sanchez says. “Those 24 hours were exhilarating and well worth all of the hard work. Being able to travel to Washington DC and meet the president was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.”

Crystal Sanchez meeting President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama greets winners of youth entrepreneurship competitions in the Oval Office, Nov. 25, 2015. The President greets from left to right: Joseph Fortuna, Jannatul Rowshan, Crystal Sanchez, Urbana Anam, Rachel Gorgas, and Kenneth Huertas. White House / Pete Souza

Sanchez began working on the Guardian Locket during her senior year of high school in Lawndale, Calif. That’s when she found out that her best friend had been raped during her first year of college. Seeing the resulting pain and isolation inspired her to action.

“I remember when she told me what happened, I was so taken aback,” Sanchez says. “She’s such a strong person, and seeing this woman that I look up to and knowing that happened to her – I felt very protective.”

The Guardian Locket is a wearable and fashionable device that utilizes hidden circuit boards. A single push of the button on the back of the locket sends the wearer a false cellphone call to potentially scare off an attacker. With another two clicks, the wearer’s exact location, her photo and other relevant information are sent to local authorities and three emergency contacts.

Sanchez’s invention has obvious advantages over pepper spray and Mace.

“Not only is Mace illegal in California, New York and other states, but there’s a high likelihood that people needing to defend themselves may get sprayed by accident,” she says.

In addition, a canister of pepper spray doesn’t easily fit into pockets or smaller clutch bags, and it can get lost in a larger tote, which – in a threatening situation – could prompt a frantic search that wastes time and may make the difference between a close call and a tragedy.

The idea impressed Sanchez’s high school economics teacher, who encouraged her to enter the schoolwide product development competition, in which she took first place. From there, she faced off against victors from other area schools, and after winning two more rounds of competition, Sanchez was granted the opportunity to take part in NFTE’s Startup Summer program, which aims to help cultivate entrepreneurial skills in low-income students.

“All of us in the program just worked on our businesses for about two months for up to eight hours a day,” she says. “We were also paired up with mentors who Summer Start organizers thought would be good fits for our products.”

There, Sanchez met her business partner, who had devised an app that worked well with her vision. Together, the two prepared for the final round of competition in New York City, and on Oct. 6 – only a week after starting classes at UCI – Sanchez was onstage competing for, and winning, the $25,000 grand prize to get the Guardian Locket up and running.

She and her team will use the money to build their inventory. They plan to launch right before the 2016-17 school year begins. When Sanchez returns to campus next week, she’ll move into space at Applied Innovation’s The Cove. The 31,000-square-foot facility is the hub of UCI’s efforts to collaborate with the larger economy, and it provides consultation for startups. Sanchez also has received help from the Blackstone LaunchPad – the student entrepreneur program with offices in the UCI Student Center.

The goal is to eventually establish a line of Guardian Lockets in different lengths and metals and with interchangeable faces. Additionally, Sanchez hopes to expand the line to include chunky bracelets, statement necklaces and even watches for men.

“It’s not only a more convenient way for women to combat the rape culture, but it’s a fashion product as well,” she notes. “So it’s all in one really.”

Although the competition and trip to the White House have made for a busy start to Sanchez’s college career, she wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“UCI was always my first choice. It’s been a difficult transition, but it’s all worth it,” Sanchez says. “We live in a world where a person is raped every two minutes. And you don’t know who has been a victim because a lot of times people try to hold it in. If I can create this product and protect people, all this extra work is nothing.”