Dream Big: Notes From Visiting A Junior Achievement Competition

Junior-Achievement-Arkansas-ATT-Youth-Business-Challenge

When I get the chance to speak with Arkansan high school students, my first goal is to impart a sense of “I can do anything!” through the sharing of my personal story of growing up in poverty in Arkansas to finding my calling in life and being able to support myself and others around me. If I can leave a room and have empowered at least one student to reframe his or her story and understanding of what the future could hold, I won’t be able to contain my smile for the rest of the day.

Erica Swallow speaks at Junior Achievement

Erica Swallow speaks at the Junior Achievement competition.

I was honored, then, to give the keynote presentation at the AT&T Youth Business Challenge, hosted by Junior Achievement of Arkansas, a non-profit organization that has brought financial literacy, career readiness, and entrepreneurship curriculum to students in Arkansas since 1987 — where I got to experience just that… A handful of students thanking me in person afterwards for sharing my story. [Thank you to Junior Achievement of Arkansas board member Mitch Bettis for the invitation to speak — one of my passions is working with driven, young leaders.]

Speaking with students is just as meaningful and educational for me as it is for the students, though. I arrived early, so that I could see the business competition in action. It consists of a multi-quarter business simulation, in which students work in teams to analyze market trends and set business budgets accordingly, for each quarter. At the front of the room, a couple of Junior Achievement staffers run the simulation, while students buzz away energetically at their team stations. Like in the “real world,” students aren’t notified of how many quarters their businesses will “run” — it’s simply an ongoing cycle that they must plan as they go, feeding on market performance.

Though the simulation software was old-school, 64-bit design, the learnings behind what the students were doing were only lessons I learned in college. Students were asked to look at past market performance — including units of their product sold, profits achieved, and total market share achieved — to adjust marketing dollars, number of units produced, and pricing, among other details.

As I’ve been from time to time since moving back to Arkansas six months ago (after a decade on the East Coast working and attaining two degrees in business management), I was impressed with the education and performance of some of Arkansas’s students. Had someone thrown me into a simulation like the one presented at Junior Achievement when I was in high school, I’m not confident I would have grasped the concept immediately. It is thanks to the resources that have been presented to or available to these students that they have the opportunity to attempt and excel at such exercises — exercises that help build an analytical mindset.

What I also enjoyed seeing was that attendees included high school teams from all backgrounds, including Benton High School, eStem High School, McClellan High School, Maumelle High School, Conway High School, Little Rock Christian, the Boys & Girls Club of Whetstone, Hall High School, Bauxite High School, and Second Baptist Church, among others. While many of the schools boast funding and special interest in economics and business education, some of the representative schools don’t have as many resources, though they likely have educators who are determined to give their students just as much access to opportunity.

2004 FLBA State Conference Scrapbook

The 2004 FBLA State Conference made my scrapbook.

These are the types of early opportunities that made me who I am today. Though I hadn’t heard of Junior Achievement while in high school, a very similar experience — participating in the Future Business Leaders of America state competition — was a perspective-altering experience for me. A few things happened. I:

  • Traveled to our state’s capital for the first time ever
  • Was given an opportunity to showcase my talent in impromptu speaking
  • Witnessed other driven students excel at their work
  • Was coached and given feedback by our FBLA advisor, and
  • Bonded with my classmates who cared about their futures, too.

Perusing through the handful of scrapbooks I made while in high school, it’s easy to see that the moments that made a huge impact on me all shared the above traits. Other meaningful entries in my scrapbook include competing in the first national electric vehicle competition with my high school team in Atlanta, Georgia; marching in a parade with my high school band at Disney World in Orlando, FL; and attending Universal Dance Association dance camp with my high school dance team in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

The Junior Achievement business competition I attended this month brought back those memories for me. For some students, I learned, it was the first time they had visited their state capital. For others, it was the first time they had worn business attire — in one case, a club advisor had helped the school’s team shop for proper attire.

These are the events and moments in Arkansas that mean a lot to me. I hope we can do more of this moving forward.

And on dreaming big… I took one sticky note with me to the podium to remind myself of the key points I wanted to hit in my keynote speech, as well as in the questions and answers session. I’ll share those four points with you, as well as a few sentences about each:

  1. Dream big. As a senior in high school, my high school counselor advised me not to attend my dream school, New York University, because my “family couldn’t afford it.” Little did she know, I would be supporting myself, and I wasn’t letting anything get in the way of me and my dreams.
  2. Take initiative. When I got to NYU, I needed to earn money to pay for school. I immediately noticed these flyers that said I could be a part of consumer behavior studies; after the first one, I was so intrigued that I contacted the professor who was running the experiment to learn more about the study. He was so impressed with my curiosity that he offered me an internship. I was the first freshman to ever work for him; his other interns were graduate students. Initiative pays off.
  3. Know your worth. Coming from Arkansas, where I had worked at Mazzio’s Pizza for three years prior to college, I had understood that my “worth” was about $5.15 per hour, the then minimum hourly wage I was earning. New York was a whole different ball field, though. I nearly tripled my wage with that move. And had I not had a mentor who explained salary negotiation to me right out of college, I would have cheated myself out of about 50% of my “worth” at my first full-time job. Research and knowledge are key. Don’t fall in the trap I did for a year out of school! That’s a lot of potential earnings I could have put towards my student loans!
  4. Never settle. Lastly, we are all capable of anything we put our minds to — it’s not always a lone endeavor, remember! Early in my career, I accepted a few roles that were definitely not a fit for me, all for the wrong reasons. I settled, because I thought it’d lead to something I’d like more. I settled, because I thought I’d be able to morph the role to better suit me once I got there. I settled, because the team really wanted me. Settling only leads to feeling unsettled. When you feel like you’re about to settle, keep moving forward and ask yourself, “What is it that I really want?” Find the answer, and do that!

In a nutshell, the above is what I hoped to convey to the Junior Achievement competition teams when I took the stage. One indication that I made an impact was a particularly thoughtful question from a student in the audience named Afraz, “What gave you the drive to become an entrepreneur?” For one, I answered, it was being a first-generation college student, knowing that by going to college, I would change the history of my family. Secondly, though — and I’m only just now reflecting on this — it was the opportunities that were provided to me that enabled me to see that I could be more than what was expected of me, and that I could attain any future I imagined for myself.

I hope that my talk was inspiring for students — that they, too, realize they can achieve their biggest dreams in this lifetime. I’m certainly still reaching for mine!

If you’d like to get a better look at what the day at Junior Achievement was like, check out Junior Achievement of Arkansas’s “AT&T Youth Business Challenge” Facebook photo album.

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