Connecting Kids and Business
Biz chats with the new President of Junior Achievement of Greater New Orleans, Larry Washington
When Biz New Orleans met with Larry Washington, the new (six months on the job) president of Junior Achievement of Greater New Orleans, the conversation took place in the BizTown setting in JA’s facility on a corner of the Delgado Community College campus. This small mock town, complete with stores, offices and government facilities, was dark when we walked in. Larry turned on the lights, but it quickly became evident that his enthusiasm for Junior Achievement, its programs and its impacts could light up any room.
Larry Washington was born and raised in Houston and never thought he would leave. He graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in marketing, and went to work for a website development company — work that he quickly found unfulfilling. Washington next considered going into teaching, and while exploring that option, came across a job opening with Junior Achievement in Houston.
Ten years later, after holding JA positions including program management, fundraising and managing the program team, he stepped away to open the largest Boys & Girls Club in Houston. It was an opportunity to build something from scratch — “to leave my mark,” as he put it — but he always knew he would return to JA.
He didn’t know he would be doing so in New Orleans. When the job here opened, Larry applied mostly as a way to learn about the process for future opportunities, but after being offered the position, he packed up his two dogs and moved.
Biz: What attracted you to Junior Achievement here? Why did you take the job?
LW: I have a strong passion for JA, because of the work I’ve been able to do with JA in Houston and the impact it had on me. When I was in school, I had a JA volunteer come to my classroom every week, in a suit, and my interaction with him told me I wanted to be like that guy, I wanted to go to work every day in a suit. And I started to change the decisions I would make to be on that path. As cheesy as it sounds, from day one when I started at JA in Houston, I knew I wanted to run a JA. My first email address was CEOWashington@yahoo.com. So I kind of spoke this into existence. As for coming here, New Orleans is an environment to do something different, and there is a need to do it, especially things like the “Trust Your Crazy Ideas Challenge.” No one else is doing something like that.
“When I was in school, I had a JA volunteer come to my classroom every week, in a suit, and my interaction with him told me I wanted to be like that guy.”
Biz: What are your top objectives for the organization for the next year?
LW: One of the things I did when I first got here was to look at where we could be solution providers. What I found was we really needed to focus our efforts. Right now we cover a 12-parish area. It’s a huge area to try to provide programming to. So over the next year we will focus all our new growth on Orleans and Jefferson parishes, because those are the kids who can benefit from JA the very most. Even beyond that, we are going to focus on middle and high school students, because when you think about the choices and challenges they face, we are the perfect organization to help guide them through thinking about careers, thinking about future opportunity and how you access that opportunity.
We want to get even more specific than that, because we think about what we can impact with those kids. We can’t necessarily impact academic outcomes, because we don’t teach math, we don’t teach science. But what we can do is change how those kids view education, and how they see that education correlating to future opportunity, future lifestyle choices, and what the end result is going to be. So our goal is to start to change the attitudes and behaviors of young people, to value education more, understand the impact education has on future opportunity, and hopefully in the short term, keep them in school.
Biz: What do you see as the greatest challenges for JA?
LW: I think our first challenge is resources. In order to reach so many kids — last year we reached just under 25,000 kids, I believe this year we will reach 28,000 — we’ve got to have volunteers who are willing to commit the time to go into classrooms and share their experiences with young people, and just be examples and role models. On the flip side of that, there has to be funding to be able to do it. So how do we engage the business community in this? Because when you think about the end result of JA, it’s a direct impact on business. We are creating a new workforce, we’re preparing that workforce, so we have to get business in New Orleans to see the value in that and support it.
Biz: You have a large number of partners. Describe some of your partnerships and how they enable you to expand your reach and your impact.
LW: The partnership we highlight the most is with the Idea Village and the Brees Dream Foundation. Together we host the “Trust Your Crazy Ideas Challenge,” which is a program that gets young people to think about how they can fill certain needs in the community with that next big idea. Being able to work with an organization like Idea Village that already has — like Tim Williamson likes to say — that ecosystem of entrepreneurship going on, we want to be integrated into that, and this allows us to help fill that pipeline of new entrepreneurs. When you look here at the shops that are sponsored [in BizTown], Capital One is one of our biggest sponsors, both with BizTown and Finance Park. Both of these are hands-on programs where kids learn everyday skills that you and I learned probably the hard way; these programs allow them to learn those skills the easier way.
With Washington’s leadership, JA will focus all of its growth in the next year on Orleans and Jefferson parish.
Biz: Given the enormous challenges so many New Orleans children face just in surviving, how do you make JA’s programs relevant and accessible to them? How do you make these kids believe they have a future that is worth preparing for?
LW: I think it’s the volunteers. All of our programs talk about everyday life, about decisions that people make every single day. Having that volunteer in the classroom brings real-life relevancy. That person can speak about experiences, both from the standpoint of success and failures, so kids can say, “I can identify with that, that makes a whole lot of sense, I can see how that works.”
Beyond that, I think what we do is fun. With BizTown, these kids come in here and they get to run a city, they get to run a business. That’s hard stuff to do, but it’s done in a fun way, so the kids don’t actually realize they’re learning. They feel like they’re having fun, but in the process they’re learning good citizenship, how to keep a budget, the importance of saving, how banking works. They don’t realize they’ve learned those lessons until much later, but they’re learning them and they’re having fun while they’re doing it.
Biz: How do you specifically reach out to and engage the more disadvantaged young people in New Orleans?
LW: We’re doing a couple different things, particularly with this shift to Orleans and Jefferson Parish.
One thing is strengthening our relationship with NORDC. We currently host almost 6,000 kids from NORDC through JA during summer; we’re going to increase those numbers, and have multiple touchpoints with those young people.
Another way is we’re engaging the school districts. We’re talking with the Orleans Parish School Board about where the greatest needs within this community are, and we’re starting to make inroads there. With Jefferson Parish, we’ve identified certain feeder patterns where JA can have the most benefit. So the way that we access the kids that need us the most is by going to the places where people already have those kids.
“Our goal is to start to change the attitudes and behaviors of young people, to value education more, understand the impact education has on future opportunity, and hopefully, in the short term, keep them in school,” says Washington.
The great thing about all of our programs is we are a direct supplement to what they are teaching in the classrooms. These are the things that the kids are learning inside the classroom, and it’s reinforced in a different kind of way, which I think teachers find immense value in, and kids learn a lot from.
Biz: Overall, what do you think the impact of JA is on the lives of young people in New Orleans, and on the community as a whole?
LW: Particularly in a community like New Orleans, I think what JA does is this: it allows kids to see that not only is the opportunity there, but the opportunity is there for them. What JA does beyond that is it tells them, this is how you access the opportunity now. Of course young people know that there are tons of different jobs out there, but what most don’t know, particularly those who are traditionally underserved, is that they can have those jobs too.
When you think about the community as a whole, one thing I’ve noticed about New Orleans is the way the city has transformed over the last 10 years from Katrina is because the people have taken on a spirit of entrepreneurship; and because of that, they’ve created new opportunity in the city. When you think about how we move that forward in the next 10 to 15 years, we’ve got to prepare young people to do it, and JA does that, and I think that in and of itself is a contribution to making this community stronger, making it grow and helping transform it into the global powerhouse we all know it can be.