Editor’s note: This story is part of our “50 Stories of People Helping People” series. As we celebrate Penske’s 50th anniversary in 2019, we are spotlighting associates every Friday who are making a difference in their communities.
Not many 15-year-olds can say their first job was on Wall Street processing multimillion-dollar checks in the center of the world’s financial district.
Yet for Penske Logistics Recruiter Karen Francis, who always thought she would have a career in radio, that experience set her on a path to a successful career in finance.
Francis credits mentors – like her teachers and high school counselor – who helped her to recognize her talents and explore new possibilities. For the past 20 years, she has been able to do the same for a new generation of students as a Junior Achievement volunteer.
“All of those influences had a positive effect in my life. It opened me up to the understanding that I had options,” said Francis, who is based in Atlanta and donates her time to the Junior Achievement of Georgia. “If a young person is never exposed to multiple possibilities in life, they could get kind of lost.”
As the nation paused this week – National Volunteer Week – to honor the dedication of millions of people helping people, organizations like Junior Achievement say volunteers like Francis play a crucial role in helping to fulfill their mission.
“For us as an organization, volunteers are crucial,” said Maria Uribe, associate, volunteer recruiter and coordinator for Junior Achievement of Georgia. “We are very lucky to have Karen as part of the JA family.”
Empowering the Next Generation of Students
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Junior Achievement (JA), which began in response to societal changes.
As families moved from farms to industrial cities, JA’s focus was to provide young people with the skills they would need to become successful adults in their new surroundings.
JA has evolved from operating mostly in the Northeast teaching teens how to start a business. The organization reaches more than 10 million students in 100 countries promoting entrepreneurship, career and work readiness and financial literacy, according to Junior Achievement USA.
“As JA continues to grow and evolve, one of our pillars is staying true to the times. JA has been around for 100 years, and one of the ways we have been able to do that is to keep up with the evolution of business and technology,” Uribe said.
This allows JA to help meet its goal of preparing students to succeed in the global economy.
Part of that evolution has been JA taking learning beyond the classroom to infuse authenticity and relevance into the academic experience.
A centerpiece to the JA programming in Georgia centers on three Junior Achievement Discovery Centers that house JA BizTown and JA Finance Park, hands-on business simulations geared toward middle school students.
“Upon completion of the curriculum, the students and educators get to come to a JA Discovery Center, a simulation space which is modeled after the real world they see every day,” Uribe said. “All of that traditional learning that happens in the classroom with worksheets, lectures, and homework is transformed into experiential hands-on learning in a one-day simulation experience.”
This is where the role of volunteers like Francis take center stage.
“Our volunteers work with a small group of students to really support them and bring the relevancy of the real world to really dive deep into those conversations that surround financial management, teamwork, communication, collaboration – all of those soft skills,” Uribe said.
JA BizTown allows students to gain experience in real-world learning as they move through the lifecycle of business operation from launching a business in the morning to closing the business at the end of the day.
Volunteers like Francis are on hand to provide assistance to the students. “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without volunteers like Karen,” Uribe said.
Mentoring Future Business Leaders
Francis was able to work with students earlier this week during a JA BizTown simulation. It was her first time mentoring students as they received their first taste of what it was like to run a business.
“To see these middle school students start a business and run it was thrilling,” Francis said. “Students discovered very early on that teamwork was the only way that the businesses could succeed.”
The students also learned how to manage their own personal finances.
“Each student was paid a salary and were allowed to go shopping to understand how to manage their money. The directive was to save, spend and give,” Francis said. “Some did an excellent job, while others went to the bank to ask for a personal loan because they didn't understand the concept of saving.”
Francis applauded the JA BizTown experience because it contributes to the students’ work readiness, while also allowing them to maneuver in the larger global economy.
“Exposing them to entrepreneurship – being able to kind of chart your own career – makes a big difference and has a huge influence on them,” Francis said.
For Francis, her reward is found in the joy of students participating in events like JA BizTown and hearing about the good fortune of students she mentored in years past.
“I am all over social media because of what I do. When you see someone you mentored or had some part to play and they are graduating from college or telling you how they are doing, there is no better thing for me,” Francis said.
“Just seeing someone actually try to do what they love to do or something they never thought about doing, it is kind of an unspeakable thing,” she said. “It’s joy, just pure joy.”
By Bernie Mixon