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Alaska Business Week and Alaska State Chamber Article


By Heidi Bohi

“If I wanted to start a business right now, I have no doubt that I could balance my income and expenses, gain shareholders, and find my retained profit.”

Sounds like something an experienced executive would say when evaluating a critical business acquisition. In fact, Blaine Bronga, an East Anchorage High School student, said this when asked about his experience at the one-week Alaska Business Week (ABW) camp, a program designed to prepare high school students for life and business challenges and opportunities after high school, including preparing for a career, workplace issues, managing money, networking skills, business etiquette, and business ethics.

A workforce development project advanced by the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, the program launched this summer with a one-week intensive hosted on the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) campus. Students live in a simulated corporate environment, learning business, teambuilding, leadership and life skills. The program is on a college campus, so students also get a first-hand opportunity to experience the college environment.

ABW is open to high school students statewide, ranging from those enrolled in traditional high schools, to those completing their GED, and home-schooled students. The inaugural session drew 45 students from Fairbanks, Wainwright, Atqasuk, Petersburg, Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kenai and Soldotna. Plans for the 2011 ABW are currently underway.

“The diversity adds so much to the program in terms of teamwork and leadership building incentives,” Flora Teo, Junior Achievement of Alaska President says. “Everyone learned so much, including me, and this experience only strengthens my belief that working with Alaskan youth in their early stages of life enhances what it will provide to the future of this state.”

Although the enrollment cost is valued at $1,200, the program is underwritten by corporate sponsors so that each student is required to pay only a $325 registration fee that includes lodging, meals, program materials, and activities and entertainment. Financial assistance is also available.

Groups of students work together as a company, and are mentored by company advisors, who are executives and leaders that volunteer from businesses and organizations statewide. Together, the groups tackle real life business scenarios, competing against one another in the world of production, marketing and finance by developing mission statements, determining business strategies and making financial and ethical decisions. By the end of the week, each company prepares a stockholder presentation and produces a trade show to present to business leaders who act as stockholders. Presentations and discussions led by statewide business leaders are also part of the week’s curriculum so that students learn the academics of what it takes to run a business.

ABW first became an item of discussion after the Washington Business Week (WBW) program approached Wayne Stevens, President and CEO of the State Chamber, with the idea of expanding its efforts into a Pacific Northwest consortium. WBW started 35 years ago and has graduated more than 50,000 high school students, many who have become leaders in various capacities. When Steve Hyer, WBW Executive Director, gave a presentation about the successful program in Washington, it didn’t take long for chamber members to see how the program could benefit Alaska, especially in light of the current and projected workforce shortage as large natural resource projects come online and baby boomers begin to retire.

“The evidence is crystal clear that the state of Alaska needs to improve its performance in educating its youth. As the well-educated baby boomer generation begins to retire, the young population that will replace it does not appear prepared educationally to maintain or enhance the state’s economic position,” according to a 2008 report titled “Making Alaska More Competitive,” prepared by the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education. “College and career preparation is the fulcrum that will tip this emerging cohort of Alaska youth toward becoming part of the solution or part of the problem.”

Recognizing the need for a program like ABW, there has been no shortage of business leaders who have volunteered cash and in-kind contributions, as well as their time.

“The benefits of the program speak volumes about helping to shape the future of our youth and our state,” Kip Knudson, External Affairs Director for Tesoro Alaska and one of the largest supporters of the program says. After hearing the presentation in Anchorage, he contributed $40,000 in start-up funding on behalf of Tesoro and also volunteered to be one of the company advisors at the state’s first ABW in Fairbanks, which involved mentoring his team of nine students from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. for six days.

Dick Heritage with The Boeing Company in Washington, Sheila Finkenbinder, Executive Director of the Sitka Chamber of Commerce, Jon Benedict with State Farm Insurance, and Teo are just a few professionals who contributed their time and expertise. Ann Ringstad, Director of Community Advocacy for UAF, also helped prepare the first ABW.

Company advisors, on loan from participating businesses, are just as important to the program’s success as the financial contributions, Stevens says. Besides contributing to simulating a work environment and teaching leadership skills, mentoring also includes providing moral support, leading team-related discussions and allowing students to make their own decisions, regardless of the outcome. Instead of a typical classroom format, the program encourages students to take chances, using critical thinking skills, “try on” different career choices, and experiment with various leadership styles to learn what is most effective for their particular business model and strategy.

The list of sponsors also speaks to the business community’s commitment to workforce development initiatives and includes: BP Exploration, Tesoro, Icicle Seafoods, State Farm, Alaska Airlines, the Alaska Credit Union League, Totem Ocean Trailer Express, Era Alaska, UA College Savings Program, the Alaska Railroad Corporation, Olgoonik Development, Juneau Chamber of Commerce, Juneau School District, and Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, as well as other businesses throughout Alaska.

“Certainly workforce development is a major focus of the Alaska landscape, and the contributing entities understand the future is in the hands of our youth,” Click Bishop, Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development and a program presenter says referring to the support of businesses. “What better way to provide the incentive to encourage our high school students to get outside their comfort zone and try on positions in the business world they may want to explore in the future?”

Eventually the State Chamber would like its program to be as advanced as the one in Washington, which offers three separate career tracks: a business program focusing on the operation of a company, a healthcare career section, and a construction pathway. All three tracks are based on a discovery-learning scenario, requiring participants to assume a role in the success of their companies.

The business pathway includes a business simulation scenario, developing a new product and a tradeshow presentation, considering ethical dilemmas, and a formal presentation to stockholders. Company members make business decisions on a variety of subjects including production, cash flow, borrowing, pricing structure, advertising and marketing, new product development, and the return-on-investments to shareholders.

The healthcare pathway includes creating a specialized clinic to address a specific health issue, developing a healthcare plan for a chosen health crisis, medical ethics, patient care and healthcare policies, as well as the invention of a new medical product, or expansion of a service that addresses the public health crisis of their choosing.

The construction pathway offers a home building simulation, developing a new residential or commercial project, a marketing campaign, and developing a presentation about the new development for investors.

This level of involvement means that besides students having a better understanding of their potential, company advisors gain insight into their strengths and capabilities as a leader, employers benefit from revitalized employees and the potential of future leaders, the university gains student interest in their campuses and programs, and high school students have a better sense of their potential and the required educational requirements.

“Long range, we would like to get there,” Stevens says of the three-track program. In the meantime, the most immediate goal is to increase attendance to 150 students for 2011, then consider adding other modules or locations. Ultimately, the goal is to run programs on the Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska, resulting in reduced transportation and project administration costs.

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