OWATONNA — Owatonna High School students Kristin Just and Lydia Anez both hope to pursue careers in business and marketing, and already they’re gaining priceless understanding and opportunities with the Junior Achievement Company Program.

“Most of us want to go into a business direction or finance direction and it’s just really, really good experience where we’ve actually been a part of a business. This is a business,” said Just, a senior at OHS with the dream job of becoming a real-estate developer.

Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest, Inc. was created in 1982 to expand financial literacy, college and career-readiness and entrepreneurship in students. JA is taught in more than 650 schools throughout the upper Midwest and in the Owatonna school district, JA has a presence in all eight public schools as well as St. Mary’s.

At OHS, JA Company Programs are an extra-curricular activity and the meetings are set-up like a boardroom where business owners in the community teach students lessons on marketing, exit strategies, inventory and capital for them to come up with a product or service to sell.

As if the entrepreneurial experiences in their marketing classes and DECA — the international association of high school and college students and teachers — weren’t enough, Anez and Just signed up for Junior Achievement. Five of the nearly 100 OHS students in DECA joined the program where they are in the works of selling the perfect product for millennials at school, and really anyone with a Smartphone.

“Husky Power” is a portable USB charger with a Husky logo. The young entrepreneurs said they wanted a product that would be marketable to students and to take advantage of their location rather than having to go out into the community.

“We sat down and we kind of had a couple ideas, and then we were like [Husky Power] is really something that kind of goes with the times. People want stuff now,” Just said. “You’re in the middle of a mall and your phone dies, what do you do? You want your phone. Then you just get to plug it in and it’s right there ready for you to use again.”

Anez, a junior at OHS, said in the beginning the group brainstormed problems they saw while at school that they could potentially fix.

“I noticed one thing in my math class: a whole bunch of people would be right next to the wall and everyone had their phone plugged in and the teacher would get upset. They don’t want people distracted by that,” Anez said.

With the portable, outlet-free charger, she said students can just throw their phone in their backpack while plugged into Husky Power and by the end of the school day it would be ready to go.

To ensure the product would sell, Anez, who is the head of marketing for the DECA JA company program, surveyed 30 students and teachers. All overwhelming agreed they would buy the $15 product for convenience and to show their Husky pride.

After meeting with Corporate Recognition in downtown Owatonna to get a reasonable price on Husky logo designs to put on the chargers, Anez said they plan on ordering 100 chargers and to start selling them around Christmas.

“I’m in charge of what I like doing and it’s something I’m interested in getting a major in for college,” Anez said. “It’s really good experience for where I’m heading. It could really progress into something pretty cool. [JA] sharpens your presentation skills, your analytical skills. You’re just thinking out of the box and being creative.”

The other JA company program at OHS involves students from the Robotics Club. That group is trying to patent a “Sports Stick” with interchangeable heads for hockey, golf and lacrosse. Unlike the DECA JA, the robotics students have only met the last four weeks with their JA business leader volunteers.

“Owatonna has a pretty good JA program here,” said Jay Johnson, founder of Bushel Boy Farms in Owatonna. “They have teachers that are here who are interested in it and have business programs. It’s probably partly due to the community, too. There’s a lot of small businesses here or businesses that started here and have gotten big.”

Johnson is a part of the Otto Bremer JA Entrepreneurship Council Southern Minnesota Committee along with 12 other business owners in the southeastern region. He attended the JA Robotics Club meeting this week along with Mike Noble, owner of Noble RV, who also sits on the council.

“Most of the jobs created in America are from small businesses. One of these kids might be successful entrepreneur someday or 10 of them. Who knows?” Noble said. “We have such an emphasis put on college degrees and too many kids are leaving college right now in my opinion with English and art and communications and marketing degrees.”

Noble said he enjoys seeing the students “look at the entrepreneurial side of this world” and hearing the thought process of them trying to figure out what product or service to sell.

The Robotics Club will reap the profits of their product if they can get the start-up funds in place to manufacture the Sports Stick. They are currently in the process of having the product approved by the JA insurance company. If not, then it’s back to the drawing board.

Life-long affects and success of Junior Achievement

JA Company Programs have been in Owatonna for nearly 40 years. As Dave Luedtke, owner of Dagry Tooling Inc. in Owatonna, recalls, his involvement with the entrepreneurial program still impacts him to this day.

“The group elected me as their president and we established a full board of officers. We voted on the products we were going to make, got the design together and figured out our plan of attack, sales wise,” Luedtke said in an email. “Without knowing then, that’s exactly how our company is ran today (more or less). JA helped me understand basic fundamentals of business, as well as a lot of help from my father, who ran a small business with my mom for 25 years.”

He said one of the big moments in JA was “rubbing elbows” with Buzz Kaplan who gave him a plaque and thanked him and the JA company for sponsoring O.T.C.

“For a 17 year old snot-nosed kid,” he said, “that was huge.”

Luedtke, a 1977 OHS graduate, still has that plaque as well as one of the products his JA team made, a wood picture frame, with the original pictures.

Down south at De La Salle High School in New Orleans, current chair of the Owatonna school board, Bill Bernard, had similar success and interest with the JA company program.

“As a participant in the Junior Achievement company program back in the late 1970s, the ‘learning by doing’ focus of the program was integral in starting an entrepreneurial fire within me,” said Bernard in an email. “In those days, we could use power tools to manufacture products and surprisingly, I still use the ‘Splashproof’ cookbook protector when I cook, made by my company in my senior year of high school.”

Bernard said he was able to compete in the Junior Achievement National Conference in Bloomington, Indiana and was a national finalist his senior year in 1979. Later he was invited to be on JA national staff as a competition judge.

“The entrepreneurial fire continued to grow within and I worked with my older brother in building a food manufacturing business through the ‘80s. The business was eventually sold to Nestle Refrigerated Foods in the mid-1990s,” Bernard said. “Nothing has affected my life both professionally and personally more than my involvement in the JA Company Program.”

JA continues to grow in Owatonna in terms of classroom instruction and volunteers. Now, there are roughly 100 volunteers in more than 100 classrooms in Owatonna with 30 local businesses delivering a variety of JA classroom programs at the high school, St. Mary’s, Lincoln, McKinley, Washington and Wilson elementary.

Financial literacy for kindergarteners? You bet, according to Laura Heyne, District Manager of Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest.

“We have a whole host of programs across the schools in Owatonna,” Heyne said.

But the biggest part of JA of the Upper Midwest are the classroom programs which have been in Owatonna since at least 1999 she said.

JA also has a presence in neighboring Waseca and Medford at Hartley Elementary, Waseca High School and Medford Elementary. Programming is in place for this winter and spring at Willow Creek — JA BizTown — and JA Finance Park at the Owatonna Junior High and JA Career Success at the ALC.

Reach reporter Kim Hyatt at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPKimHyatt

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