There is no “typical” Junior Achievement (JA) Business Week student because there is no typical entrepreneur. By its very definition, entrepreneurship requires new ways of thinking and unconventional ideas, and that’s why JA Business Week helps every young person develop their distinctive skills and embrace creativity. High school students come from all over Colorado and Wyoming each summer to attend this fun, intensive, one-week boot camp, immersing themselves in the world of business and what it takes to become a leader. This summer we followed the unique experiences of Trey Robinson, a three-time returning JA Business Week student in the JA Venture Academy program, and his Company Advisor, Keshsa Vasant.
Learning in a traditional classroom setting has been a lifelong challenge for Trey, a Ralston Valley High School graduating senior. He struggles to pay attention to lectures, is easily distracted when studying, and has difficulty sitting still. “That kind of learning environment just doesn’t stick with me,” he says.
However, Trey thrives in the JA Business Week environment where his intellect and creativity can shine. He was one of 12 students who participated in JA Venture Academy, a JA Business Week program for third and fourth year students who dive into entrepreneurship by creating their own businesses and learning from real-life serial entrepreneurs.
Keshsa fell in love with JA as a University of Denver student in 2014 when she taught JA in a Day. Later she volunteered with the JA Be Entrepreneurial program and became a company advisor for JA Business Week in 2018. The connections she built with the other company advisors inspired her to return for another year.
“Everyone is super passionate. I keep going home and telling my family, ‘there are people who have being doing this for fifteen years!’ That motivates me to do my best, because if they’re making an impact, there’s an opportunity for me to make an impact as well. So I think that they have been my biggest motivation to do better.”
On day one of JA Business Week, students played lighthearted games to break the ice with their peers. “People are so outgoing,” Trey says. “It feels like the ice has already been broken. It’s really easy to be around people here and have some fun.”
“I told them, ‘think about your interests, what you care about, what you like.’ Sometimes you have to ask questions to get them thinking. It’s there in the heart – you just have to bring it to the surface,” Keshsa says.
Trey is passionate about boating and water sports because he loves how outdoor activities bring people together. The brand Life is Good inspired him to start a similar lifestyle apparel company, but this time, geared toward a niche market in the apparel industry: boating enthusiasts. He calls it OMT, which stands for “one more time.” It describes the feeling a wakeboarder has when they want to go another round on the water.
JA Venture Academy students dove into training sessions the next day to find inspiration for their own companies. Most had no idea what kind of company they wanted to start, so volunteer company advisors like Keshsa helped them brainstorm.
Throughout the week, JA Venture Academy students built their business plans with the help of training sessions taught by local business leaders, covering topics such as branding, business structures, and finance. They applied their newfound knowledge and asked their company advisors for guidance during daily work time. At first, Trey felt lost with these large windows of time and their loose structure, but by the end of the week he found ways to attack his tasks strategically. It was a positive learning experience for him because he felt like he was learning to become more independent and prepared for the real world. Keshsa says, “I keep myself open, so that anytime the students have any questions or anything, they can feel free to come and ask me. And if I don’t have answers, I will find resources. I’ll tell them, ‘this is how it’s typically done, this is how I did it, you can use this, but you have to tailor this for yourself.’ You have to change it based on what works for you.” She checked in with each JA Venture Academy student every morning to ask how they were feeling about their business plan that day, and answered their questions. Often times, the students also gathered advice from one another.
According to Trey, “It’s more of a collaborative environment. We’re sharing pretty much everything except the deliverables, but everyone’s really helpful. It doesn’t seem like anyone’s too worried or focused on the idea that we’re each other’s competition. I wasn’t expecting it to feel like a team, but it still does feel like a team.”
JA Business Week culminates in a Shark Tank-style competition, so not only do the students create a business proposal, they also sharpen their presentation skills for their “pitch.” Keshsa advised the students to focus on the story behind their company and let their individuality shine through. She says, “At the end of the day, investors actually invest in you more than the ideas. Show them that you care about the idea and that you are very confident, because it’s your personality that they’re going to be investing in as well.”
With a relaxed demeanor and confident attitude, Trey pitched OMT to a panel of six volunteer judges, all of whom started their own businesses and possess a wealth of knowledge in the field. He began by describing his personal history and the “why” behind his product – how he had a boat-shaped bed as a child, worked for a boating company in high school, and created fond memories with his family and friends at Stanley Lake. This apparel line captures the feeling of water sports, which has not been done before, according to Trey’s research. He told the judges about his target market, sustainable product materials, financial forecast, and marketing strategy involving social media influencers and giveaways. Then he made the big ask: “Who’s ready to ride this next wave of lifestyle apparel?” Finally, the panel had an opportunity to ask him questions and offer advice. Trey and his peers also met one-on-one with judges after they finished presenting so that they could receive feedback and strategize their next steps.
OMT was not necessarily modeled conventionally. Instead Trey lent his contagious enthusiasm to the judges. Plus, he also succeeded in creating a solid financial statement and robust, strategic marketing plan, which had originally challenged him earlier in the week.
The day wrapped up with a debrief session among the students and company advisors. Keshsa used the opportunity to congratulate all them for their accomplishments, regardless of the competition’s outcome.
“It’s just remarkable to see how you’ve grown from Sunday to Friday,” Keshsa said. “We see that shift, we see that change, and it just makes us really happy and proud.”
Keshsa and her fellow company advisors gave their own personalized awards to the young entrepreneurs of JA Venture Academy. Trey received the “Silent Ninja Award” because of the way he works quietly and then sneaks up with an amazing idea. Other students were recognized for their teamwork, courage and ingenuity.
Being an entrepreneur requires being self-directed and using the resources you need, and JA Business Week gave Trey the space to test his skills. Seeing his own success in this context, he gained the confidence that he can succeed in the business world.
Learn more and apply for JA Business Week 2020 at www.JABusinessWeek.org