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Business Week Sprouts Leaders

Fairbanks program gives youth a taste of leadership in the corporate world


Are Alaska businesses pondering the problem of knowledge transfer and the aging workforce? Are we wondering how we’ll get tomorrow’s leaders—or where they’ll come from? No need. At a summer camp on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, many of those future business leaders are getting a taste of what’s ahead and learning how to meet the challenges they’ll face.

Alaska Business Week, a partnership between UAF and the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, gives high school students the opportunity to find and use their leadership skills as well as earning college credits. For one week each summer, students—with guidance from business advisers drawn from some of the state’s leading companies—create their own businesses, learn to deal with shareholders, understand the link between marketing and sales, and navigate the minefields of financing.

“It’s a life-changing experience for our students,” says Ann Ringstad, UAF’s director, Office of Community Advocacy. “It inspires them to step out of their comfort zones, to consider what talents they may have that they don’t even know about yet. It makes them consider their futures and all the opportunities open to them.”

Ringstad provided the spark that brought the Business Week concept to Alaska from Washington. In 2007, Ringstad says, the Alaska State Chamber board visited the program created by the Association of Washington Business and met a believer in the Washington Business Week program, Steve Hyer.

“The following year, Steve came to Alaska and made a presentation to the Alaska State Chamber board. He said, ‘wouldn’t it be a great idea if Alaska got involved,’” Ringstad says.

In 2009, Ringstad, at the behest of the Alaska State Chamber, participated in the Washington Business Week program as a company adviser. She says she wanted to “drive it first” before she championed it at UAF. Hyer, the executive director for the Foundation for Private Enterprise Education—the organization created to house Washington Business Week and more advanced spinoffs on the program—said Washington’s program started in 1976 at Central Washington University. Within a few years, Hyer says, the program had spread to about 24 other states—17 of those programs are still operating.


Stepping Up

When Ringstad returned to UAF at the end of her stint with Washington Business Week, she was convinced, and during the summer of 2009 Tesoro presented the Alaska State Chamber with a $40,000 check to kick-start the Alaska program. Adding spice to the infant Alaska Business Week was UAF School of Business’ support that provided students with two college credits for completion of the Alaska program.

“We really had no problem generating interest among businesses,” Ringstad says. “Just by hearing about the program, they were sold on it. Many contributed funding, transportation to and from Fairbanks for students from across the state and company executives to participate as advisers during the week. Some sent employees to serve as judges of the various competitions. It’s such a great way to show businesses that there’s a future here in Alaska.”

The first Alaska Business Week was held in late 2010, Ringstad says, with 45 participants.

“It was magic—just like Washington Business Week. Last year, we had 64 kids attend and this year there were 65. We have plenty of capacity for more students, so we hope to grow the program in the years to come.”

Each business week follows a basic pattern, according to Hyer. The first step is to divide students into individual companies.

“Students are selected based on the area of the state they’re from, the level of their schooling, their genders, etc.,” Ringstad says. “Each company is given the same product, the same amount of money and the same number of employees. Then each company has to select their leadership—CEO, CFO, Marketing Director—and each company has to go through eight business quarters.”

Hyer adds that the companies have to make 11 business decisions each quarter during their simulated two years of business. The companies are asked how they want to produce their products, to expand their capacity, spend their marketing money and whether they’ll need to borrow money or not. Their quarterly decisions are run through a computer simulation program, then the results go back to the student companies and become the base for the next quarter’s decisions.

“It’s all about increasing profits in an ethical manner,” Hyer says.

Ringstad adds that each company has to decide how much stock they should have, what type of company they’re going to be—high end or low-end—and decide pricing. They’re each given a series of ethical questions to decide during the week, as well. All of these decisions go into the computer at the end of each quarter and the companies are told, “here’s how your company is doing this quarter and here’s how your competitors are doing this quarter,” Ringstad says. All of the work the companies perform during the week is interspersed with presentations from today’s business leaders—leaders such as Margie Brown, CEO of Cook Inlet Region Inc., Marilyn Romano, regional vice president of Alaska Airlines, and Anand Vadapalli, president of Alaska Communications Inc.

“Participants receive in-depth briefings from a long roster of entrepreneurs and business leaders covering topics such as leadership, corporate ethics, marketing and finances,” Ringstad says. “Then after each presentation the groups return to their individual company rooms, analyze the message and figure out how to use the information to improve their companies.”


Hands-On Help

In addition to the experienced business leaders who make presentations, there is a team of business executives who work directly with the students throughout the week to advise and coach the teams in their pursuit of a winning strategy, Ringstad says. These coaches draw on their own individual backgrounds and experiences to provide guidance to their teams during the decision-making processes. This year’s coaches came from Alaska Communications, NANA Oilfield Services, State Farm, the UAF School of Management, and the Alaska State Chamber, and included a retired Boeing Company executive and a staff member of the State House of Representatives.

Brad Osborne, president of NANA Oilfield Services, is a member of the Alaska State Chamber board and says he was wholly in support of starting Alaska Business Week. As an adviser this year, he had “a great mix of kids—home schooled and public schooled, from Palmer, Wasilla, Chevak, Anchorage, Juneau-Douglas, Skyview, Noatak and Chalkyitsik,” he says.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better group of students,” Osborne says. “From a management point of view, their style was very good. They all listened and they all contributed. By the end of the process, everyone knew what decision the CEO was going to make. At every decision, they had a number of options and the first two meetings were a bit chaotic. By the end, the group operated like a well oiled machine. They identified each other’s strengths and filled in each other’s weaknesses.”

Jon Benedict served as adviser for another group—with students from Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Noatak and Stebbins. Benedict, business underwriting specialist for State Farm, says he’d volunteered in Washington. After being promoted and moved to Alaska, he looked into volunteering again.

“It’s hard to describe the experience,” Benedict says, “because it’s so fast and furious. But you really see the lights going on during the week—see the gears turning and all the elements coming together. They begin to realize that every decision they make affects their business. And it’s so rewarding watching them grow beyond their comfort zones, watching them realize they have leadership qualities if they just let those talents out.

“Several of the students I’ve had over the years have told me that no matter what they finally chose as a college major, they would include business classes because they recognized the ways in which business factored into just about every career choice,” he adds.

Andy Rogers, deputy director of the Alaska State Chamber, enthusiastically agreed with everything Osborne and Benedict say about Alaska Business Week.

“Everyone’s response to Alaska Business Week is: WOW!” Rogers says. “What we had to learn by trial and error, these students are learning through the program. Every one of them will be better equipped to become a business leader.

“We were so fortunate to have Ann (Ringstad) see the opportunity and the importance of the program, both to Alaska businesses and to UAF,” he says. “Everyone wanted a program like this, but it took some personal commitments to make it happen.”

Rogers says he was particularly impressed this year by a young woman from Saint Mary’s. “It was about mid-week,” he says, “after running about four or five quarters, something clicked for her. She really understood the “growth” part of the shareholders’ charge. She became the financier for the group. She decided how much the company needed to borrow, how much to invest. She made the math work.”


Recruiting Future Leaders

This year’s camp is history, but next year’s is in the planning stages. Ringstad says recruiting students is one of the biggest challenges Alaska Business Week faces. The camp accepts students who have completed their first year of high school through graduation, and it makes a big difference in the lives of the students who attend.

“Coming to ABW has been a refreshing wake-up call,” says Ariana from Tsuk Taih School in Chalkyitsik. “It changed my way of seeing life and showed me how to be the best I can be with real-life decisions.”

Kia, a student from Bartlett High in Anchorage, says: “ABW was about future education and it helped me to decide which path to take in life. I learned how to be respectful, confident and trustworthy.”

Many businesses have stepped up to contribute, according to Ringstad. The Alaska Railroad provides train tickets, ERA has given up to 20 round-trip tickets for rural kids, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company has provided sponsorships for several Alaska Native youth and NANA helps fund all costs for at least three shareholders to attend. The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce ATHENA Society provides scholarships for Anchorage-area young women and the Palmer Chamber of Commerce provided a scholarship for a Palmer youth this year.

“It takes a village to pull this off,” Ringstad says. “Will we do this again? Absolutely.”

Gail West is a freelance writer living in Anchorage.

This article first appeared in the October 2012 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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