By Abby Osborne
At first glance, Sreenidhi Banda seems shy and somewhat withdrawn, but when you start to talk to the Charter School of Wilmington sophomore about business and her own company, she lights up. This is what Junior Achievement (JA) has done for thousands of students in Delaware over the past 100 years: Build confidence.
JA instills practical lessons in business and entrepreneurship in high school students. These lessons culminated in the April 16 JA Barracuda Bowl competition, where teens from schools in Delaware and New Jersey form teams and run their own businesses with the help and support of adult volunteers.
Throughout the year, these teams run their own small businesses and run them like they would in the real world. Yes, these teenagers design products, survey prospective customers, order products, learn to market like seasoned pros, and write up detailed annual reports — quite the feat for teenagers who haven’t even graduated high school yet.
• First: Ram Inc. (Salem (New Jersey) High School)
• Second: Connection Ready (Caesar Rodney High School)
• Third: Cavs Mart (Middletown High School)
JA President of the Year: Lisa Lawrence (Caesar Rodney)
JA Salesperson of the Year: Shalayby Parsons (Salem)
Within the brightly colored, museum-like halls of “JA Biztown” at JA’s headquarters in Wilmington, and even in the less exciting halls of their respective schools, Ryan Venderlic, the student enterprise manager for JA Delaware, has noticed the change in the students he mentors.
“I think, ultimately, learning to be more confident and how to actually sound confident and look confident are probably some of the biggest takeaways for these kids because once you have that you can do anything with your life,” Venderlic said.
These kids certainly are doing what they set their mind to — and not just in the JA program. Many students, like Jordan Hipsher from MOT Charter School and Patrick Cassat from Sussex Technical High School, have their own businesses outside of the JA program and are applying what they’ve learned.
These lessons in business and leadership, like how to effectively market one’s product to the target demographic and navigating the financial aspects of starting up their own company, translated into the Barracuda Bowl entries, which include a kit filled with “essentials” for winter to help those who walk to and from school (Ram Inc. of eventual winners Salem (New Jersey) High School; device chargers that don’t get tangled (runner-up Caesar Rodney High School); and selling school-branded apparel and products (Middletown High School and Sussex Technical High School, respectively).
At the end of the day, though, these students aren’t in it for the prize money or the bragging rights — in fact they focus on something very different. They frequently discussed how excited they were that these companies were making an impact on real people.
“You’re doing it to solve [a problem]; you’re doing it to help the consumer do something or rely on something they might actually need. It’s about the little things that help people,” said Banda.
They’ve learned that building these companies and helping consumers is something that requires a lot of teamwork. In fact, nearly every student interviewed attributed the specific company’s success, as well as their own personal success, to teamwork, the relationships they built, and their advisers — especially Venderlic, who was repeatedly mentioned as someone who inspired them to persevere through the many challenges of starting a company. Without him, they say, success would’ve been infinitely harder.
“Passion, skin in the game (I’m in it, I’m all in it), and perseverance. Those are things I saw today and see every day,” said judge Michael Bowman, state director of the Delaware Small Business Development Center, in his closing remarks before the winners were announced.
The adult judges and volunteers described the students as smart, dedicated, persistent, and showed an ability to display humility as well as a willingness to quickly pay credit where credit is due.
And perhaps more important, students like Sreenidhi Banda are coming out of their shells, becoming their own persons, and preparing themselves for the future — just like many Delaware business executives who once participated in JA programs have done before them.
Abby Osborne is a junior at Avon Grove (Pennsylvania) High School.