Today, more than ever, we need to help our young people take charge of their lives and learn how to become financially successful. On Friday I had the pleasure of serving as a judge for Junior Achievement’s sixth annual Student Entrepreneurship Challenge, and in doing so my hope for the future of our young people was renewed. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this organization, it has been around since 1954 and its goal is to “empower young people to own their economic success and stay in school, through financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and work readiness programs.”
JA is a worldwide organization serving more than 122 countries. In Los Angeles County, more than 85% of students in the JASoCal experiential programs come from low-to moderate income families. More than 90% are from ethic minority groups. The students pay nothing for the programs, which are taught by volunteers and supported financially by individuals, corporations, and foundations. No money comes from any government agency. How refreshing!
I was invited to be a judge by JA board member and volunteer instructor Neeta Patel, whose day job is Director of Energy Systems at Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. She told me I would have the time of my life and she wasn’t exaggerating. Imagine walking into the Mike Curb Learning Center for Free Enterprise and seeing a huge room with booths along the walls, each one belonging to a team of young entrepreneurs showcasing a business the team had actually built and launched. In the booths the teams pitched and demonstrated products that ranged from specially designed backpack straps containing pockets for a cell phone or wallet (S.O.S.O – Strap On Strap Off – a team from Animo Watts College Preparatory Academy) to a multipurpose hand-held storage unit on a key chain for USB drives, keys, ear buds and other small items (Stow’n’go – a team from Lennox Academy). Some had filmed commercials; others displayed their marketing materials.But everyone was excited, enthusiastic, and wanted to talk to you about their business.
Now I’ve been to plenty of events where "entrepreneurs" promote their businesses. This was different. These kids didn’t just make up their businesses and write a business plan to compete. They actually sold stock to fund their businesses, created their products, and then sold them, all in about 3 months. Not only were nearly all of the 10 companies in revenue but most had also donated a portion of their profits to charitable causes as part of demonstrating the socially responsible side of their businesses.
The team that won the competition was Swipe ID, and these Westlake High School students (see picture) will be heading to the national competition in Washington DC. Demonstrating capabilities that could compete with any university team, graduate or undergraduate, the team was solving the problem of “motivating students to be more engaged in school and perform at a high level…” in addition to generating more funds for their public school. Using the student ID card that every student carries and swipes to get into an event, they use a simple point system and incentives to engage students. So, for example, if you attend a girls’ soccer match, you earn 100 points. Students can also earn points for academic achievements. At the end of each quarter, their points are accumulated and prizes are delivered on Reward Day based on the reward category the student achieved. Revenues are generated from advertising and sponsorships. A simple concept to be sure, but it looks like a winner for the school.
Remember, these are high school students. What’s important is that in going through the JA program, they learned how to start and manage a business that solves a real problem.They learned team building and how to keep their customers happy.And most importantly, they learned that they can take charge of their financial future.
I can’t say enough about what a wonderful organization this is. If you’re looking for somewhere meaningful to volunteer your time (lots of companies send their employees as volunteers) or an organization for your philanthropic giving, I highly recommend Junior Achievement. You’ll be investing in the future of our country—our kids.