In Catherine Milone’s 10 years serving as president of Junior Achievement of New Jersey, she and her team have seen tremendous success as an organization, taking to heart the message they spread to students.
Junior Achievement is a national nonprofit organization with 117 locations whose purpose is to educate and mentor K-12 students in work-readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy. That means that each of the roughly 4.5 million students nationwide gets a glimpse of life as a business person — instilling practical understanding of the challenges of that life and how to overcome them from a young age.
“The mission is to inspire and prepare young people to succeed in a global economy and essentially own their economic success,” Milone says.
“We bring the real world to students through relevant, hands-on curriculum that is delivered by trained corporate and community volunteers — sometimes from volunteers as young as high school,” she says.
A booster shot for all
JANJ’s method involves successful executives connecting with young people and passing down business acumen, mentoring them and lending insight into real-world business situations.
To achieve these goals, JANJ developed programs such as:
- The Women’s Future Leadership Forum, where high school students are paired with female mentors.
- JA BizTown, a simulated community with 14 “companies” that students operate.
- JA Finance Park, a program to teach students personal finance management.
These programs aim to develop healthy business minds and finance skills in younger generations before they enter the market.
But the benefits go both ways. The students learn valuable lessons. The corporate volunteers learn new skills, reinforce their current knowledge, strengthen their business and take part in team-building exercises.
Mentoring young people also can be good for company pride and unity.
“Mentorship is not just about that one-on-one experience,” says Dawn Schwartz, senior vice president of development, communications and capstones at JANJ.
“Mentorship is a team-building experience (where) you can bring a group of people together to have that sense of camaraderie that you’re coming together to help leave impressions on other people’s lives,” she says.
It’s what’s inside that counts
The JANJ team’s intent is to motivate and educate, and they take that mantra seriously internally as well. Under Milone’s leadership, the organization continuously evaluates goals, develops strategies, educates its employees and has maintained steady growth.
In the 10 years under Milone, the number of students the program reaches has grown 230 percent, from about 15,000 to more than 50,000 students in 2014.
This and other accomplishments have earned JANJ the Junior Achievement USA Summit Award for organizational soundness seven times. That kind of success takes a strong team and a dose of their own medicine, Milone says.
Identifying strong team members is key to meeting the organization’s goals.
“We tend to look at the needs of the organization, and then we find the strengths of the individual,” Milone says. “It’s not just finding the right people externally; it’s also building on the strengths of people internally as well. In order to be successful, you need to surround yourself with really, truly phenomenal people.”
Practicing what they teach
Launching major initiatives and expanding your business requires an effective strategy, and the business strategy and financial knowledge that JANJ programs aim to foster are not only helpful for the students and mentors, but also are employed by JANJ.
In order to have a capstone program, you need a major financial investor to commit a large sum of money to help you get off the ground, says Schwartz, who was instrumental in the launch of JA BizTown.
JANJ received a million-dollar grant from MetLife Foundation plus a commitment from MetLife to build the storefronts of the simulated community and provide mentors and role models.
To get buy-in from MetLife, JANJ had to build their case.
“To be an entrepreneur, you have to understand the need,” Schwartz says. “You’ve got to know that you’re filling a need, and then you’ve got to look at how you’re doing it differently. And then you’ve got to find that right investor.”
The JANJ team continuously assesses their strategy and adjusts based on monthly goals.
Milone credits their success to translating the lessons their program espouses into practical activities internally, including building a strong team, developing a strategy, identifying opportunities and constantly improving.
“Internally, we have our own vision, and we talk about our vision monthly — and it’s the culture. We have a culture of self-improvement,” Milone says. “We review every month what we want to look like, who we want to be, who we are.
“This is an exceptional team that we’ve built here in New Jersey, and surrounding yourself with good people is absolutely the most important ingredient for the success of any organization.”