I got my start in business at a fairly young age delivering papers, mowing lawns, shoveling driveways and walking dogs, but my first real startup experience happened in high school in a program sponsored by Junior Achievement. We began the year by splitting up in companies and over the next several weeks we learned how to form a board of directors, issue stock, form a management team, make payroll, pay dividends, turn an idea into a product, manufacture a product and finally sell that product to consumers. We didn’t just learn HOW to do this by reading a book or listening to a teacher – we did it by actually building a REAL company. My company made ice scrapers – very exciting, but we actually turned a profit.
I decided to get involved with JA about the same time I saw the 1983 hit Risky Business. You might recall that Joel (played by Tom Cruise) got kicked out of Future Enterprisers (thinly veiled verion of JA), but by the end of the movie his little ‘business’ had actually done very well. The last scene in the move has Joel pretending to present his business to the judges at the Future Enterprisers club, “My name is Joel Goodson. I deal in human fulfillment. I grossed over $8000 in one night. The time of your life, huh, kid?” Of course, I immediately wanted to start my own business – I was hooked. In college I took a few business courses, but I never learned as much as I had in JA. The hands on experience I received in JA gave me the confidence I needed to start my first real business.
More recently I decided to volunteer for the JA program here in Dallas. The first step was to sign up for a training program. The program was excruciatingly boring – I was learning about interviewing skills, checking accounts and mortgages – what did that have to do with starting a business? I soon learned that JA had shifted its focus away from teaching entrepreneurship and free enterprise. The new JA was focused on two primary goals: workforce readiness and financial literacy. No longer does JA help students learn by doing – i.e. creating their own companies. The instructor explained to me that the organization felt that suggesting kids start businesses would be a disservice as very few students in DISD would have the skills to build businesses once they graduated. Instead their hope was to help students become good WORKERS with an understanding of the proper use of checking accounts and credit cards. They even explained the value of labor unions and how collective bargaining was key their financial security. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The program SPECIFICALLY designed to help demystify starting a business had given up on its core mission and had been co-opted by big labor.
Horace Moses and Theodore Vail, the co-founders of JA, would turn over in their graves if they new what JA has become. Moses was an entrepreneur who started a paper company in Western Massachusetts – he gave a considerable amount of his life (27 years) and his fortune to help Vail (the founder of AT&T) start Junior Achievement. Moses and Vail were real American entrepreneurs and they were convinced that anyone, with the right tools, could build a business. JA was designed to give kids the tools and inspiration necessary to build their own companies.
Today JA is run by Sean Rush and Jack Kosakowski. Sean Rush is an academic who has spent his entire career focused on education and non-profit work. Little is known about Jack Kosakowski prior to his involvement with JA and there is no evidence that he has any business experience. Given Rush and Kosakowski’s non-business background I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the direction they have taken the organization.
If you haven’t guessed I am 100% opposed to JAs current mission (i.e. workforce readiness and financial literacy). I think Rush and Kosakowski’s decision to abandon the goal of making entrepreneurship attainable for all is symptomatic of what is wrong with America. Remember the Occupy Wall Street movement? The protesters spent all summer complaining about corporations. These kids grew up without the slightest idea that they could start their own corporations. Why are we surprised they feel left out? They believe corporations are something that OTHER people build – not normal people – i.e. the 99%. But almost 100 years ago Moses and Vail sought to bring the concept of the corporation to the 99%. Rush and Kosakowski gave up on that vision. Shame on them.