The following is a conversation between Jack Kosakowski, President and CEO of Junior Achievement USA, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: It is quite an achievement for any organization, profit or nonprofit, to make it to its 100th birthday, but that is what Junior Achievement has done, as 2019 marks its centennial anniversary. And here to discuss with us its past achievements, as well as its future vision and plans is the President and CEO of Junior Achievement USA, Jack Kosakowski.
Good evening, Jack, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Jack: Good evening. Thank you, Denver, for having me on.
Denver: Well, Congratulations on your centennial. Tell us a little bit about the founding of the organization way back in 1919, and a few of the milestones along the way.
Jack: The organization was really founded as the Industrial Revolution was taking place. We had lived in an agrarian society up until then, and the businesses were finding that the young people really weren’t prepared with the kind of skills that they needed to be successful in this industrial economy. Senator Murray Crane, Horace Moses of the Strathmore Paper Company, and at that time the head of AT&T were all three founders of the organization. The idea back then was really very simple: To take young men and young women and have them operate a mini company where they would do a production line; they would go out and sell stock, do everything that a business would do so that these young people would get that level of experience.
It became a very popular thing to do. It started here on the East Coast in Springfield, Mass. and really stayed as a regional organization through World War II. In fact, sometimes timing is everything. There was a huge announcement by a big business group, I believe, on December 1, 1941 about expanding JA nationwide, and of course, the war got in the way, six days later.
So, after World War II, we started to do a nationwide expansion. It took off very quickly. It was a very popular program. Of course, in those days it was an after-school program, involved high school students only, and it continued to grow. And really, that original company program that many listeners probably were a part of was the only program that Junior Achievement operated up until about the mid-1970s.
And at that point, a couple things started to happen. We started to see that the skills that employers were looking for in young people started to change; we were kind of merging into a service economy. The other piece is even though we had been around since 1919, up until 1974, probably the maximum number of kids we were reaching nationwide was under 300,000. So, to really make a movement, you needed more than that. We didn’t know how many more, and we needed to reach them in different ways because another key was, we started to see that the attitudes that our supporters were looking to change in young people were being formed way before they got into high school.
And so, our first foray into an in-school program, a school environment, was a program we called Project Business, which really took all of the elements of learn-by-doing from the JA company program but took it into the school. So we had a business volunteer that would go in and work in collaboration with the classroom educator – this, at the time, was an eighth grade program – and teaching kids very basic, fundamental economic concepts. It proved so popular that teachers at the younger grades were asking for more, and teachers at the higher grades. So, beginning in the 1980s, we became a full K-12 curriculum.
Over the years, what started to happen is that the after-school program dwindled a little bit. A couple reasons: One is it is more costly than the in-school approach because you had to maintain facilities. But the other piece of it is the demand from the schools was so high for what we were doing, that we were able to get those business people into the classroom.
What we found was multiple benefits from that. You were able to provide a sequential learning approach to the students, kindergarten through 12th grade. The partnership of the business executive and the teacher proved to be more valuable than we could have ever imagined. A lot of our educators are asked to do so much in the classroom – and that continues today – but unfortunately, they just didn’t have that business expertise that they could share. So a lot of the professional educators would tell us that they learned as much in the program as the kids did. And so, through the ‘80s and ‘90s, those programs continued.
And then, we started getting exposed to go back to more of a site-based experiential program. Probably in 30 of our markets right now, we have facilities called Capstone Facilities where we operate either our JA Finance Park program or our JA BizTown program. In these programs, for example in JA Finance Park, the students take a financial literacy course in school, but then they come to this JA facility, which is very Disney-esque. It has brands that they see on the street – different banks, different home goods stores and things.
The students go into this facility with a life situation card. It may say that you’re 25 years old, an unmarried mother of two, and you need to go through this little mall-like experience and do your budget for a year. So, they know how much money they’re making, so they have limited choices, basic economics. It’s real world stuff. Because you’re using real brands, real experiences, that experiential learning takes place. This becomes an emotional experience. I’ve seen young people that have gone through this program, and at the end, they may be sitting there with tears. And naturally, I get a little concerned, but then I find out they realized what their parents had to go through to raise them.
Denver: As part of all this growth, you became an international organization as well. How many countries are you in? How many young people are you serving currently?
Jack: Currently, globally, we’re approaching 11 million young people; about 4.8 million of those are in the United States. We’re in six regions around the world. I had the good fortune of serving for about four years as chief operating officer for our global entity, so I did a lot of work in China, a lot of work in the former Soviet Union, in the Middle East. The thing that struck me as I had those experiences was how much more value the education system puts on what Junior Achievement does outside of the United States than they do in the United States.
For example, Queen Rania of Jordan was our ambassador, and she could get me into nearly any Ministry of Education. And what you saw through these educators is that they knew they’re graduating all these kids, and if they didn’t have jobs… entrepreneurship… when they graduated, they were going to spend their time doing something else. And so, it was a very real need for them.
Denver: Who have been some of the notable alums who have been part of Junior Achievement at one time or another?
Jack: That’s a great question. One of the most notable is Mark Cuban, who is a household name now. Mark was in the program at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and he’s made note through several blogs that he learned more about business in Junior Achievement than anything else he’s done in his lifetime. Donna Shalala, former Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Denver: And the President of the University of Miami as well.
Jack: Yes. Went through Junior Achievement in Cleveland, Ohio. Listeners who are fans of the band Kiss, Gene Simmons, I guess, is one of those. Gene is a New Yorker, and he credits all of his business acumen to Junior Achievement. In fact, he wrote a book, Me, Inc., and there’s an entire chapter on Junior Achievement.
Denver: That’s great!
Jack: So, it goes the whole gamut. We have doctors…sometimes people think, “Okay. You’re in the business of turning out little business people.” That’s not the case at all. We want to make sure that the young people that go through our programs have the experience and knowledge to choose the direction that they want to move in.
Denver: I think another example would be Dan Rather.
Jack: Dan Rather is another great example of that.
…we provide the business knowledge and acumen, so to speak, in terms of how to do it, but we’re firm believers in the “soft skills;” Now, they’re called “21st century skills” of teamwork, collaboration, getting along with people.
Denver: Talk a little bit about those skills. What are some of them that somebody who goes through Junior Achievement will pick up. And how do they complement what they would ordinarily learn in school?
Jack: It’s a good question. Now, clearly, we provide the business knowledge and acumen, so to speak, in terms of how to do it, but we’re firm believers in the “soft skills”; now, they’re called “21st century skills” of teamwork, collaboration, getting along with people. Our experience has been that some of the most knowledgeable people are not successful because they just don’t know how to get the job done. And so, in the Junior Achievement experience – and it starts all the way down in kindergarten and goes all the way through high school – all of these young people have to work with their peers and come up with solutions to complex problems.
So, it’s that information, and some of it I think is just pure knowledge. Young people grow up not knowing much about business. In fact, it goes through cycles. I was in JA in the early ‘70s, and business was a dirty word. It since has gone up with people like Mark Cuban, that “Hey, business is a great thing!” But now you’re starting to see attack on business again. And so, what we’re able to do is really provide the knowledge to the young people of what the capitalistic society that we have has been able to do for our country.
Denver: Are your programs predominantly or all in school? Or do you still have some that are after school? What’s the split of that?
Jack: We do have both in school and out of school, but I would say probably 95% of the programs are still in school.
Denver: You mentioned a moment ago about volunteers. And from what I’ve always understood, if there was really a backbone to the organization, it was your volunteer base. Tell us a little bit about who these people are, how you recruit them, and specifically, what they do.
Jack: We have a quarter of a million volunteers every year in the program. The vast majority of those are business people. We do have some PTAs and PTOs, but even then, they tend to be parents who are business people that come into the classroom. We provide the curriculum and a very hands-on approach to teaching a topic. So, the volunteers don’t come in and lecture; they sort of work with the students on various projects that get more complex as a student goes through school. I believe they are truly the secret sauce of what we do.
In fact, I’ll give you an interesting story, a personal story. I first got involved in JA as a student. I was a sophomore in Toledo, Ohio. I joined a company that was sponsored by the DeVilbiss Company. I joined for all the wrong reasons. There was this cute blonde sitting in front of me, and I thought this would be a great opportunity.
Denver: Sounds like a good reason.
Jack: So, I go to JA, the first session, and there was a gentleman. He was—actually, I’ve just recently found out—an engineer for the DeVilbiss Company who saw something in me that teachers hadn’t seen, coaches hadn’t seen. He took a real interest and got me involved. And at that stage, I was the kind of kid who was an okay student, terrible athlete, terrible music, but Mr. Gimpel saw something in me that other people didn’t see. I never got the girl, but I certainly… through that inspiration… The funny thing is I just finished 45 years professionally with the organization, and my associates tracked down Mr. Gimpel, and he was amazed at the impact that he had. So, if any listeners think that one person can’t change somebody’s life, they’re wrong. Mr. Gimpel was that guy for me.
We find out that JA alums are making 20% more in their jobs. They’ve reported a higher level of happiness with their career than other folks.
Denver: You know how important it is to measure the impact of programs that an organization has, and impact sometimes can be difficult to weigh. Tell us a little bit about that and what kind of successes have you had in terms of the outcomes of the JA programs.
Jack: We’ve invested as an organization probably more than most youth organizations in terms of metrics of success, because the majority, the vast majority of our money, comes from the business sector, and they demand to know what kind of results are we getting. And so, we do the standard pre- and post-tests, which we see there’s tremendous learning that takes place. Of course, the holy grail in any organization like ours is a longitudinal study, which are very expensive, very difficult, and because we’re in schools, it gets hard to get that kind of data, but we’re starting to launch those.
We’ve done alumni retrospective studies, and it’s sort of interesting. Twenty percent of the kids, so 1 in 5 JA alumni end up in the same career as the volunteer they had in the JA Program.
Denver: That is interesting.
Jack: Yes. So that tells you volumes. And when we talk to engineering groups and they’re saying “We need more female engineers,” how do we do that? We’ve got to get those role models out in front of the kids because they’re not exposed to that. They don’t even realize that that’s a potential career opportunity.
We find out that JA alums are making 20% more in their jobs. They’ve reported a higher level of happiness with their career than other folks. So those are sort of a retrospective, but we are getting more and more into the longitudinal and those direct studies.
Denver: In terms of studies, you do surveys on a periodic basis. One you have recently completed has been on disconnected youth, and those would be young people between 16 and 24 who are not working or enrolled in school. How big a group is that? And what trends are you seeing?
Jack: As part of our centennial year, we partnered with the Population Reference Bureau, and we pulled data from nearly five decades of census data. And so to give you a sense of it, in 1970, 23% of females were disconnected, and that is not involved in work, not involved in school, kind of just not doing anything. By 2017, the most recent year that we had data for, only 11% we’re disconnected.
Denver: That’s impressive.
Jack: So, clearly, there has been an impact, not just by Junior Achievement, but everyone else, the society that is working on those students.
Now, on the males, probably not so good. In 1970, 9% of the males were considered disconnected. By 2017, it actually rose slightly to about 12%. There’s a lot of reasons for that. You can go back to the Vietnam War where people my age were going to school just so they didn’t go into the military.
Denver: I do recall.
Jack: And then beyond that, I think the good news is… for the disconnection rate for Blacks and Hispanics youth have fallen considerably over that period of time, from 23% to 18% for Black youth, and 23% to 13% for Hispanics.
So, I think the work of organizations like Junior Achievement is definitely having an impact, and part of the reason we do these studies is really to be a knowledge base for folks that are interested in this space.
…young women are more interested in science from a standpoint of how can they help people.
Denver: Well, that’s really in your sweet spot. You’re dealing with these young people, and it’s good to know that you can put it on a macro level and really have some kind of perspective of all the work that is going on.
You mentioned female engineers a moment ago, but a recent survey by JA indicated that teen girls’ interest in STEM careers has declined slightly, and that’s quite a surprise with so much emphasis being placed on that topic. What were some of the reasons for that decline?
Jack: Well, of course, you never really know. But when you look at the data, and you look at the young people involved, most of what’s being done in STEM education got a builder’s sort of philosophy around it – talking about the robotics, building robots, writing code for computer programs, and things like that.
And so, in the survey, what we did see is that the young women are more interested in science from a standpoint of how can they help people.
Jack: Purpose-driven, exactly. And so while we don’t often think of nursing and medical as a STEM career, it clearly is built around science, and the young women’s interest in those programs has increased substantially.
Denver: I think even running a tractor these days is a STEM career. Pretty much everything that you do.
Let’s face it, nonprofit is only a tax status. If we don’t make a difference, if we don’t make an impact, we’re not going to exist.
…we really refer to ourselves now as a for-impact organization. The entire reason we exist is to prepare young people to succeed in a global economy. We do that through financial literacy, workforce readiness, and entrepreneurship education.
Denver: Jack, I saw an article you recently wrote, and you suggested that organizations in the sector not refer to themselves as nonprofits, that we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Why do you say that, and what do you suggest instead?
Jack: It’s a great question, and a revelation. Of course, I’ve been in this career a long time, and we were working with some consultants on fundraising. And they started pointing out to us that we’re the only sector of the economy that refers to themselves by what they’re not, as opposed to what they are.
Let’s face it, nonprofit is only a tax status. If we don’t make a difference, if we don’t make an impact, we’re not going to exist. And so, we really refer to ourselves now as a for-impact organization. The entire reason we exist is to prepare young people to succeed in a global economy. We do that through financial literacy, workforce readiness, and entrepreneurship education. So, our entire focus now is on impact. When we talk to donors, it’s about impact. When we talk to volunteers, it’s about impact because that is why we exist.
Denver: Well, whether you refer to yourself as a non-profit or for-impact, what you need is money to finance the organization and pay the bills. Tell us about your business model and who some of your key supporters are.
Jack: We raise in the United States collectively about $185 million a year. The vast majority of that is corporate dollars, and so we are kind of the antithesis of the typical nonprofit or a social service agency that’s getting money from individuals.
And it goes back to our beginning, the whole reason we were started is to help prepare kids for the world of work. And so it only goes to serve that companies like Citi– that are interested in youth being financially literate and successful– are huge supporters. The financial services sector in general are big supporters of Junior Achievement. The manufacturing sector is huge.
We’re struggling a little bit in what I would call new economy businesses out on the West Coast, and part of it is I think, people still view Junior Achievement as an old economy organization; yet we are having tremendous success in a blended-learning approach where we now have a learning management system. So when our volunteers are going in to work with our teachers, they’re not opening a piece of paper. They have an e-book or are working off of their phone, so there’s technology there. But those are our primary sources of income.
Now, we are starting to look more and more at high-net-worth individuals. What we find out is that in the business sector, we’re kind of a B2B; our recognition level is very high. Amongst some in the high-net-worth individual, not so much. And so, we’re going to be putting more and more of an emphasis in that area.
I think it’s a very collaborative culture. We use a corny term… people think it’s corny, but we don’t. We really see it as a JA family, that despite the fact we have these 107 markets across the country that kind of compete with each other to be the best of the best, the level of sharing that takes place in the organization is amazing.
Denver: And it’s interesting what you say about Silicon Valley. Sometimes I think that with legacy organizations, there’s a preconception about them, and they don’t really take that careful look. They’re looking for younger startup tech-centric nonprofits than they are for organizations that have been around for 100 years.
Tell us a little bit about your workplace culture, and maybe two or three things about it that you really think help make it exceptional.
Jack: Our workplace culture is cool. Let me tell you this, I’ve been doing this for 45 years, and I feel like I’ve never worked a day in my life because we’re helping people. And what we’re finding now, especially with millennials coming out of school, is: they’re looking to change the world. They’re looking to make a difference. There are very few careers where you are actually able to see– day in, and day out– how you’re changing people’s lives.
And so, our culture is very much decentralized. I know when I hire folks that report directly to me, I say “Hey. I’m hiring your brains, not your time,” and so there’s a bit of latitude that folks have in terms of being creative in terms of how we accomplish our goals. The young people that we’re recruiting, both at the national level and at our area level, have an opportunity for remote working, which as you know is becoming more and more popular, especially in markets like here in New York City.
I think it’s a very collaborative culture. We use a corny term… people think it’s corny, but we don’t. We really see it as a JA family, that despite the fact we have these 107 markets across the country that kind of compete with each other to be the best of the best, the level of sharing that takes place in the organization is amazing. So if something is invented here in New York, they’re more than happy to share it with their peers around the country.
The fact that we’ve been around 100 years is pretty impressive, but we feel that that 100 years has really set us up to be more successful in the future. So, the theme we’ve used is “100 years; 100% Ready.”
Denver: I’ve done a lot of work on nonprofit cultures, and family is the word that comes up in all the very best of them.
As we mentioned earlier, it is your centennial. Does the campaign have a theme? And are there any activities around it?
Jack: Well, Denver, it’s interesting. We started preparing for our centennial about three years in, and when we talked to other organizations that had gone through this, both for-profit and not-for-profit, what we found is a unanimous: (1) Don’t try to do too much; and (2) Nobody cares that it’s your birthday.
And so, what we decided to do, with some really good marketing help, is to reference the past. The fact that we’ve been around 100 years is pretty impressive, but we feel that that 100 years has really set us up to be more successful in the future. So, the theme we’ve used is “100 years; 100% Ready,” and we’ve been promoting that theme throughout.
…if you find something you like to do, the money becomes secondary.
I would really encourage young people not to chase the dollar, but really to chase what they’re good at, and what they enjoy doing.
Denver: Let me close with this, Jack, and it has to do with career advice. In a world where the jobs of today may not even exist 10 years from now, and conversely, there may be a whole new slew of jobs that we haven’t even imagined yet, what advice would you give to a teen today about thinking about their future career?
Jack: It’s a great question. I would say that I’ve had a huge paradigm shift over the years, seeing young people come up and faced with that question.
When I was graduating from college, everybody was looking at: “Where can I make the most money? Where am I going to get the most perks?” And I was fortunate that I found an organization I love. And so, I said, “Well, I like doing this.”
And so my advice to young people that are graduating from college is number one, you got to get the education. You got to get that, but I would chase – this sounds silly – chase your dreams. What do you like to do? Because I sincerely believe if you find what you like to do… and it could be counting numbers; it could be engineering; whatever it is, go after it. Get experience in it. Make sure it’s really what you like to do. But if you find something you like to do, the money becomes secondary. The fact that you’re going to work is: it’s kind of what you enjoy, it becomes who you are. So, I would really encourage young people not to chase the dollar, but really to chase what they’re good at, and what they enjoy doing.
Denver: Yes. Which also sounds like they need to experiment a little bit to really find out, because sometimes we don’t know until we actually start doing it.
Jack: You’re absolutely correct. I remember when I was in high school, I had a bookkeeping class. I loved bookkeeping. I look back on it now and it’s like, “Thank goodness that I didn’t go…”
Denver: What was I thinking?
Jack: What was I thinking? Exactly!
But if people in this country, and really around the world, could learn that the number one key to success is: You can’t spend more than you make! We’d be a lot better off than we are today.
Denver: Well, Jack Kosakowski, the President and CEO of Junior Achievement USA, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and what visitors will find on it.
Jack: Our website is real easy to find. It’s ja.org. On our website, you’ll be able to learn all about our programs and what we do. But I think more importantly for parents and for teens—well, students in general will find activities. I think parents in general struggle with having money talks with their young people. And so, on our website, they’ll be able to find a whole bunch of information– at different age levels– of what is appropriate to start doing. We’re firm believers you start as young as kindergarten, maybe even pre-kindergarten, in terms of real simple stuff that you can do that you don’t maybe realize the difference it’s going to make in a kid’s life.
I talk to business people and educators, they always say, “Economics is so complicated, financial literacy…” No, it’s not. Number one, You can’t spend more money than you make! Number two, You got to save a little bit of everything that you make. Number three, You got to put something in insurance or what-not, for catastrophes. It really boils down to that. And you can get as complicated as you want with stocks and bonds and wherever you’re going to do it. But if people in this country, and really around the world, could learn that the number one key to success is: You can’t spend more than you make! we’d be a lot better off than we are today.
Denver: For sure. But if you do have a little extra to spend, I bet you have a donate button there, too, right?
Jack: We absolutely do. If you’d like to invest in Junior Achievement, there is that opportunity.
Denver: Well, thanks, Jack, it was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Jack: Thank you very much, Denver.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.