Nonprofit Spotlight: Junior Achievement

Training youth to be workforce ready

It’s not every day that you meet a 15-year-old CFO. But Arden Bean of Charlotte, North Carolina, loves finance. This bright teenager dreams of attending UCLA and becoming a future business leader. Her vision began with a fifth-grade field trip to “BizTown,” a simulated city where elementary students take on different roles in commerce and government and try together to keep the gears of their mini-civilization humming. Bean was hooked, and returned for several summers to attend its camp, where she had a blast as “CFO of the food court.”

When summer camp gave way to summer internships, she diligently socked away half of each paycheck, because she knows “it’s important to save.” It’s an understatement to say that most teenagers don’t think (or act!) this way. And outside of the financial aspects, she gained invaluable life lessons about teamwork, leadership, and soft skills. As she worked with other students running the town, she noticed that “some people were bossy” and remembers thinking, “that’s not going to work.” She realized the importance of collaboration.

BizTown is just one component of Junior Achievement, a national nonprofit that provides financial literacy, ­workforce-readiness skills, and entrepreneurship training to young people. Starting with programming in kindergarten and continuing through high school, J.A. emphasizes financial responsibility and independence. Sarah Cherne, president of Junior Achievement of Central Carolinas, explains the significance of teaching kids these values: “As human beings, we are designed to contribute. When you contribute, it does something to your mind and spirit.”

Founded by two business executives and a senator in 1919, J.A. uses age-appropriate information to guide students’ development as functioning members of society: money management, how to put a budget together, and “how that budget corresponds to your income, your lifestyle, and the lifestyle you’d like to have,” says Cherne. It’s an ethos rooted in accountability, self-determination, and being productive, regardless of what path you follow. “You can’t have the rewards without the work,” she says.

Some of the programs at the ­elementary-school level include “Our City,” “Our Community,” and “Our Families.” Middle-school students learn about “Economics for Success,” the “Global Marketplace,” and “It’s My Future.” In high school the programs focus on preparing students for their next steps in education or employment.

J.A. has programs in all 50 states, and reaches almost 5 million students per year. Although there is uniformity in the ­programs and curriculum they implement across the country, each J.A. has a distinct relationship to its community. In some regional chapters, like in the Central ­Carolinas, J.A. partners with schools; throughout the Charlotte metro area, its curriculum is taught to approximately 45,000 students a year.

Charlotte’s major industry is banking, which is a natural fit for the organization. “Because we have a lot of financial institutions in our city, people understand the relevance of our work and our mission,” says Cherne.

At J.A. of the Central Carolinas, about 4,000 volunteers are trained to teach J.A.’s curriculum. Sometimes employees from local corporations will participate, undertaking a group volunteer project. Other times J.A. participants who went through the program years ago return as volunteers.

Matthew Clatworthy, a senior vice president at Woodforest National Bank, is an active supporter of J.A. of Central ­Carolinas, as a personal donor, volunteer, and newly minted board member. Woodforest Bank also contributes to J.A., both locally and nationally. “This was a no-brainer partnership,” Clatworthy says. “Junior Achievement has found a gap in the development of our youth and their programs do a fantastic job in helping youth to see what their future could be, and giving them the tools in order to achieve that vision.” It’s an “amazing experience,” he says, to “see children go through the curriculum, starting off not knowing what they want to do or be, and then when the programs are wrapped up, they have a plan.”

A surprising number of those childhood plans come to fruition. One piece of evidence: half of the board of J.A. of Central Carolinas is comprised of alumni, now successful business leaders in their own right. As J.A. helps students focus on business vocations, its own mission is ­strengthened—and communities get more fiscally responsible adults positioned to contribute to future prosperity. —Allison Futterman