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Growing to serve the next generation of entrepreneurs

November 6th, 2017

By Bridgett Hernandez | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

A Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana ceremony Wednesday marked the launch of the organization’s “Casting the JA Vision” campaign to finance a $12-million new facility at the corner of Coldwater and Wallen roads.

The organization’s new home will house its headquarters, JA BizTown, JA Finance Park and a new Entrepreneurship Center. The campaign will also provide funding to launch new programming.

Growing pains

Incorporated in 1952, Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana is the seventh largest program in the nation. The program serves more than 139,500 prekindergarten through 12th grade students in 30 counties.

For more than 60 years, the organization has offered students entrepreneurship, financial literacy and work readiness programs. Making it a point to practice what it preaches, the organization has achieved a lot inexpensively, said Lena Yarian, president of JANI. But when it comes to investing in the next 60 years, organization leaders felt the dollars were better spent on a new facility rather than maintaining the current one.

Yarian said she’s grateful for all the people who worked to make the current facility happen, but “the organization has grown and changed dramatically since the 1970s, so the programs that we operate today don’t necessarily compliment everything that we’re doing in this physical facility.”

The organization’s main office, which houses JA BizTown, is tucked between Northcrest Shopping Center and JoAnn Plaza. It can be a challenge to find and the location doesn’t lend itself well to school bus parking, Yarian said.

The organization leases a second location on North Clinton Street for its JA Finance Park. The new facility will bring the operation under one roof.

Increasing capacity

JANI offers students two immersive role playing experiences in JA BizTown and JA Finance Park. JA BizTown is a fully interactive simulated town with storefronts that represent actual employers in the community. Fifth and six graders can spend the day being workers and consumers. The program exposes them to a working economy and helps them explore various career options and learn soft skills.

Yarian said the experience introduces students to jobs in the community that they might not have realized existed.

“(Students) don’t know that a radio station is a business. Kids at that age see buildings; they don’t see jobs,” she said.

JA Finance Park prepares middle and high school students for future financial success. In the classroom, students learn about budgeting, credit cards, debit cards, financial institutions and taxes. Then they come to the facility and they’re given a life scenario. They consider financial information like marital status, family size and salary, and they navigate everyday decisions like getting to work and buying groceries.

These two programs reach about 20,000 students each year. With the new facility, the organization anticipates that it will be able to increase its daily student capacity by as much as 10 percent.

In addition, the larger space will allow the organization to add more storefronts. This will allow it to increase revenue through additional sponsorship opportunities while allowing them to highlight important industries and feature more jobs related to advanced manufacturing and skilled trades.

Developing new initiatives

JANI’s new Entrepreneurship Center will incorporate existing entrepreneurship programming while offering some additional initiatives.

“We believe that most entrepreneurs get started early – as early as grade school – in terms of having ambitions down the road of starting or operating their own business,” said Doug Wood, chairman of the board of Junior Achievement. “We intend to be one of the incubators and supplements for information as they continue to grow and evolve.”

Yarian said the organization has plans to introduce an entrepreneurship summer camp where students participate in fun, hands-on activities that develop their sense of creativity, innovation, problem-solving skills, soft skills and business judgement.

The organization also wants to launch an entrepreneurship competition like “Shark Tank” in which students work in teams to develop and implement a business idea.

JANI is working with Hagerman Inc. and Design Collaborative on the design of the new facility. The space will feature exhibits to highlight local inventions, including the domestic refrigerator and handheld calculator, as well as entrepreneurial leaders including Chuck Surack, founder of Sweetwater, and Patricia Miller and Barbara Baekgaard, the founders of Vera Bradley.

The organization is working with Aptera Software Inc. to create exhibits using augmented reality, a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on the user’s actually environment (similar the technology used in Pokeman GO).

“If [students are] engaged, they’ll listen to our message, and they’ll be excited about the message that we have,” Yarian said.

A community asset

Junior Achievement is doing its part to help create an attractive business environment in the region, said Jim Johnston, chairman of the board of the Junior Achievement Foundation.

“We can identify who the next Steel Dynamics and the next Vera Bradley and the next major company and help our young people understand entrepreneurialism and grow their thoughts and ideas. I think that’s very significant for our community,” he said.

The organization wants to encourage businesses of all sizes to get involved in the “Casting the JA Vision” campaign. In that way, the project has the potential to be a true reflection of the business community, Yarian said.

While the project’s timeline is gift dependent, she anticipates the project could start moving forward as soon as this winter or fall.