Each summer for the past 38 years, students and adult leaders from across our state have gathered at university campuses for weeklong, free enterprise “boot camps” called Business Week.
There are other summer youth camps and school programs that focus on potential business careers, so what’s so special about Business Week?
What happens in Business Week is different. It has a magical quality that transforms the lives of both the students and the adults who mentor them.
I’ve been involved as an adult leader in Business Week since 1980. From the beginning, we wanted to ensure ethnic and economic diversity among the students, and we wanted to involve teachers as leaders and mentors. To make that possible, we asked employers and service clubs to subsidize the program and provide scholarships so high school juniors and seniors from all backgrounds could attend.
At Business Week, students cover the spectrum of economic backgrounds. Some participants have never been on a college campus, while others are world travelers. Kids that are sometimes shunned in school interact with star athletes and student leaders. Skin color and the size of bank accounts simply do not matter at Business Week.
When they first arrive, many of the students are unsure and skeptical, but by the second day, the magic has begun. By Friday — graduation day — hesitant strangers have been transformed into confident, enthusiastic friends who have a difficult time saying goodbye.
How does that magic work?
First, friends who arrive together are separated. Any clique, relationship or history that previously defined a student — in their eyes or the eyes of their peers — is gone, replaced by an opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to remake yourself.
At Business Week, students are placed in groups of 10. Each group forms a company, creates an innovative product, figures out how to produce it efficiently, and crafts a marketing strategy. The teams live together, eat together, work together and learn together. Students are encouraged to share their experiences, to listen and understand. They learn how to work in teams, but they also learn how to lead.
At week’s end, the teams participate in a trade show where they sell their ideas to “investors” — business, educators and community leaders from across the state who donate their time to Business Week.
Seeing these young people come together, to watch as their confidence grows, to see them transform into self-assured, enthusiastic, imaginative people — often surprising themselves in the process — is a phenomenon that is difficult to describe.
It happens with the adults, too, as major business leaders bond with teachers and students they’ve never met and may never see again.
So what transforms people?
First, the program is about learning life skills. It’s more than just being tops in the business simulation program. It is the realization that you have untapped ability and potential.
Second, it is unconventional because students are challenged to be grounded and creative at the same time. Innovation is the order of the day.
Third, Business Week offers students firsthand experience with risk and responsibility. Adults provide guiding hands, but the students develop their companies, find solutions to problems and create something the world has never seen before.
Finally, it is about bringing disparate people together to work, live and have fun. Traditional class, ethnic and economic barriers evaporate for a week.
Diversity, creativity and unlimited potential have drawn generations of immigrants to America’s shores for more than 200 years. All of that is compressed into just one week at Washington Business Week.
That’s the magic of Business Week.
Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state’s chamber of commerce.