OWATONNA — Dressed in formal attire, high school students buzzed around Christian Family Church Friday morning for mock interviews, sales pitches and more with representatives from the local business community as part of the annual District 1 DECA Conference.

Hosted by the Huskies for nearly a decade, the one-day event provides an opportunity for teens from across southern Minnesota to come together and compete against each other in business-related activities and simulated situations.

Emma Loveless, president of Owatonna High School’s DECA program, explains that it’s essentially a business club. Students help each other out with resumes and projects, in addition to preparing for extemporaneous events at the district conference.

The 12th-grader explained that, in addition to mock interviews and sales pitches, everyone competes in individual role plays, where students are assigned a position such as marketing manager.

“You sit down and talk to the judge who’s the CEO of the company and you prepare a solution to a problem,” said Loveless. “You get 10 minutes to prepare and a couple minutes to present and then they ask you questions.”

Scott Pierce, the club’s adviser, said learning how to think on their feet is one major takeaway students get from the event.

“Some of the presentations are prepared, but a lot of this is interacting with the judge and thinking of what you’re going to say based on what they say,” he explained. “A lot of times you don’t know what they’re going to ask.”

Growing program, one sibling at a time

It was Pierce who brought the DECA program to Owatonna over 15 years ago, after being encouraged by a new hire from Waseca who had seen the club in action. Since its founding, the business educator noted that it has grown from under 20 kids to near 100 — with a considerable spurt in recent years.

“There were only four freshmen from Owatonna when we started,” recalled senior and vice president Erin Holzerland, noting that this year there are roughly 25 seniors in the group. “We asked people to join and be with us. Owatonna grew that way and I think the other schools have, too.”

“I think we might have had 100 kids four years ago, but I’d say in probably the last six or seven years, we went from maybe 40 to 80 to now we’re at 100,” added Pierce. “It’s picked up in the last six years.”

When asked about the reason behind this growth, both Pierce and the two officers cited word-of-mouth as one of the primary factors helping expand the club.

“The kids that are in it tell their friends that they get a lot out of it and have fun doing it. They recruit their friends,” said Pierce.

He added that over the past two years, 11 out of all 12 DECA officers have had older siblings go through the program. Both Holzerland and Loveless had brothers in the club, and the latter said she first went to a meeting because her brother was also her ride to and from school.

Local judges, regional contestants

Although the program has been around for longer, Pierce said Owatonna only began hosting the district conference roughly eight years ago. As with the club, he said attendance for the event has been seeing some growth in recent history.

“When I started, it was in Rochester, and then they pretty much dropped their business and DECA programs,” he explained. “When they dropped out, the numbers dropped but now it’s starting to pick back up again. We just added Kasson this year, and Faribault’s grown.”

At Friday’s event, he tallied roughly 385 students and 120 adult volunteers, many of whom come from the local business community. As the host, Pierce said Owatonna is responsible for finding the majority of judges.

“It’s getting easier now that I’ve done it and we have a good database of people,” he added. “A lot of them have been helping us since the first time we had it here. The first few years, it was a little overwhelming to do but now it goes a bit smoother.”

After beginning around 10 a.m., Pierce said events typically finish up between noon and 2 p.m. Adults then enter the scores and divvy out medals. Beyond that, he said awards are typically given out back at each school.

“We don’t have a ceremony here because a lot of schools need to get back. For Owatonna, we have our own awards Sunday night at the school and go through each event and who made it to state,” he explained.

Last stop before state

Loveless added that Friday’s district conference will be the only one that many DECA participants attend. After that, the top eight from each event move onto the state competition, which will take place in early March.

“After that, there’s a national conference, which not many people make it to,” said Loveless, “but every year there are some Owatonna DECA members who do go out there.”

For Huskies hoping to make it to state, Pierce said they have to log so many service hours in addition to performing well at the district level. Outside of conferences, Loveless said students meet and work together on preparations and projects, and officers also contribute to two main collaborative efforts.

“The one that I’m working on consists of different campaigns. We’re working on spreading the word about what DECA is to the school and to the community,” said Loveless.

Holzerland added that she is working on a project focused on the finances of the Owatonna High School store.

While Loveless said she’s not necessarily planning on pursuing a career in business, she explained that DECA has provided her with an opportunity to practice public and extemporaneous speaking habits that could be useful in a variety of situations.

“It teaches you a lot of skills that you wouldn’t get just taking a normal class at the high school,” added Holzerland. “Being here, you’re in an actual business situation.”

Reporter Bridget Kranz can be reached at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPBridget. ©Copyright 2019 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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