JA Helps Train the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The Cardinal Cafe at Canfield High School is no lemonade stand.

Before the pandemic closed the school, it operated in an old classroom and comprised tables, chairs and a full work area. Students ran the whole show, making and selling coffee and pastries to staff and classmates before first period, as well as running the business, says Gregg Warner.

As a board member and instructor for Junior Achievement of Mahoning Valley’s Be Entrepreneurial program, Warner used his experience as the patient accounting and billing representative for North Star Critical Care, East Liverpool, to guide the students. Students set the budget with their business teacher and handled ordering, managed their payroll, and maintained balance sheets and the books, he says.

“It was nothing for them to generate $300 in the 35 minutes’ time they were open,” Warner says. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

JA’s Be Entrepreneurial program teaches students the basics of assembling a business plan, then challenges them to start a venture while they attend high school. 

It’s effective in instilling the entrepreneurial spirit, Warner says, particularly in Canfield where it’s paired with the high school’s business class.

At the start of the seven- or eight-week program, Warner asks the students how many are interested in owning a business. Only a handful say they are. By the end of the program, however, “that number sometimes doubles,” he says.

“It impresses me how much the kids get out of these business classes,” he says. “They give them the nuts and bolts they need to get to that level of entrepreneurial thinking.”

Typically, Junior Achievement of Mahoning Valley reaches about 13,000 students each school year through entrepreneurship programs such as Be Entrepreneurial and the Innovation Challenge, as well as its financial literacy programs, says the local chapter’s president, Michele Merkel. 

Numbers were down slightly the last school year because the onset of the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close, Merkel says. This year, with schools keeping to very strict occupancy restrictions, Junior Achievement instructors will be working virtually, either with recorded lessons or via video conferencing platforms such as Zoom.

“Because of the pandemic, this is our only option for delivery of these programs,” she says. “It’s just going to depend on each school and each district on how they’re going to go back.”

Online learning is nothing new for Junior Achievement. Over the past few years, the national organization has been transitioning some of its programs to blended online learning, Merkel says. This year, the local chapter is working with educational service centers in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties to offer job and career fairs by using the virtual vFairs platform.

Because Gov. Mike DeWine has advised against field trips and other in-person opportunities, vFairs will give the organization a way to virtually bring those opportunities to as many as 10,000 students at a time, she says. “So we’re excited about that.”

While some of the volunteer instructors might not be entirely familiar using virtual platforms, Merkel says Junior Achievement is in a good position to get them acquainted. The organization has used them before to conduct lessons when instructors were out of state, Merkel says.

“This is not our first go-around connecting volunteers through technology to present JA lessons.” 

Aubrey Blews isn’t concerned about the blended model. In fact, the human resources director at New Leaf Residential Services Inc. says virtual platforms are “a great tool” that enhance her presentation. 

“For me, I’m a visual learner. I need to see it and be in it at the same time,” Blews says. “I think that comes into play for a lot of people.”

In the nearly 20 years she’s been volunteering with the organization, Blews has taught just about every program Junior Achievement offers. 

“It’s been amazing,” she says. “That’s why I keep coming back for more.” 

Blews implemented some virtual elements into her past presentations, she says, and they were well-received by students and teachers.

“Honestly, I think it’s the wave of the future,” Blews says. “The students who are in the school now are more used to virtual and online learning opportunities.”

Some of the more hands-on elements are going to be more difficult to virtualize, Merkel says. For the Innovation Challenge, students work with Pizza Joe’s and are given the task of creating, marketing and selling their own varieties of pizza.

One way they’re considering offering the experience this year is to have the pizza materials brought to the school and have someone film the students making the pizzas, she says.

Some thought will have to go into how physical sites such as the Cardinal Cafe can continue to operate if they’re unable to conduct business as they did before the pandemic.

“They’ll have to rethink the products they sell next school year. And we’ll have to figure out what platforms they want to use to market their items,” Merkel says. “A lot of our students had transitioned to online credit card acceptance for payments versus doing checks and cash.”

Giving students this experience and guiding them at a young age are important to fostering the entrepreneurial spirit, as well as strengthening their work ethic, Warner says. By instilling in them business ethics and the expectation of getting work done on time, it puts the students “head and shoulders” above others entering the workforce who haven’t had the same experience, he says.

“It’s interesting to watch the professional growth that comes out of them,” he says. “If you can make a difference at this level, whether they know you or not, why wouldn’t you get involved? If I can’t find time for that, then shame on me.”

Based on a 2020 survey of Junior Achievement USA alumni, 53% of program participants have started or owned their own business, Merkel reports. Of those businesses started by JA alumni, 83% are employers compared to 20% of U.S. small businesses, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

“Junior Achievement, across the board, with our entrepreneurship program, has a very high group of alumni who are going on and starting their own business,” Merkel says.

Financial literacy is essential to developing business acumen, says Ken English, a financial adviser with the Austintown branch of Edward Jones. English has been a volunteer financial literacy instructor for Junior Achievement for 15 years and says his lessons span career, investment and retirement.

Students are at a disadvantage if they graduate from high school not knowing how to set up a 401k, open a checking or savings account or set up a pension, he says. For those who are college bound, it’s about understanding how to safely build credit and set a budget to repay their student loans.

“There’s not a lot of conversation around that, how to save money for the future,” English says. “Those are the kinds of pitfalls they can run into. And everybody has them. I just try to educate them holistically on what would impact all of them.”

The biggest lesson he teaches is the “power of saving their money,” English says. Many of the students he teaches have part-time jobs, so he teaches them to pay themselves first, he says. If $100 is earned, $10 should be put into a savings account, he says. He teaches them that with compound interest, when they’re in their 60s, “They’ll be very surprised how it adds up,” he says.

Since he’s been teaching financial literacy, 12 students from area schools are investing with him at Edward Jones, he says. A student can open a mutual fund for $250, he says.

“The biggest misconception is that you have to have a lot of money to do it. And that’s simply not true,” he says. “It’s really awesome to see the impact. And if I can get one student to save, then I’ve done my job.”

Pictured: As part of JA’s Innovation Challenge, Champion Middle School students Emily Abruzzi, Bella Ross, Alivia Danowski and Ceila Bayus present their idea for an innovative pizza creation, Killer Caprese Pizza. (Image: Junior Achievement of Mahoning Valley)

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.