Before college, business school, or their first jobs, more than 2,000 U.S. high school students are learning what it takes to become tomorrow's brightest business leaders.
Each year, nearly 25 Rotary clubs and districts conduct three-day educational retreats in a program known as Camp Enterprise. At each retreat, seasoned business professionals and entrepreneurs teach 100 or so area high school juniors how to develop, launch, and operate a successful business in a free enterprise economic system.
The intensive weekend camps, funded entirely by the clubs and offered at no cost to participants, teach students team-building, leadership, and motivational skills.
For 33 years, members of the Rotary Club of Austin, Texas, USA, have facilitated a Camp Enterprise as part of their vocational service. Club member W. Gaines Bagby, the chair of this year's event, says he hopes the camp leads students to want to create jobs after college, rather than just look for them.
"I'd say most if not all of the students really don't understand what business and entrepreneurship is all about," says Bagby. "This camp is an awakening for them. Around day two, you can see the lights go on in their heads, 'this is what I want to do.'"
At the beginning of the retreat, participants are divided into teams of 6 to 8 students and asked to create their own business plans from scratch. Then they take part in team-building exercises to get to know each other so they can determine their roles within the business, including CEO, chief financial officer, marketing director, and human resources manager. Finally, they present their business plans to a panel of prominent entrepreneurs and venture capitalists from area firms.
Camp counselors, mostly club members who are successful business owners themselves, mentor the teams. Students also meet one-on-one with mentors specific to their roles.
Rotary member involvement makes the difference
John Arrow, who attended Camp Enterprise as a high school junior more than 10 years ago, joined Bagby last year to talk about the camp on a radio program in Ohio, Rotary Radio International hosted by Rotary member Dave Diffendal.
Arrow, a tech entrepreneur who founded Mutual Mobile, an emerging mobile tech firm in Austin, told listeners that he was impressed by the sophistication and level of thought put into the camp. "I thought to myself, 'these people at Rotary get it,'" he says.
Arrow said one of the most valuable elements of the camp was when his team was asked to assign their own roles. Quickly evaluating teammates and assessing their strengths and weaknesses let him practice a skill he now uses at his own company.
"When we do our hiring, we make sure we really understand the core of who somebody is, instead of looking at just their résumé," he says.
Being among likeminded students who had the same passion and interest in entrepreneurship added to the experience.
"The environment was so invigorating," says Arrow. "It only amplified throughout the event. We had incredible guest speakers, who I still stay in contact with. The experience of talking with them and bouncing ideas back and forth really gave me the confidence that I could do something big, too."
Fellow Austin club member Stephen Shang says that's the "heart and soul" of the program.
"Rotary is filled with great business leaders. Our members, who spend the weekend as counselors and give the students access to their knowledge, is where the magic really happens," Shang says.
Shang, who will be the keynote speaker at his club's next Camp Enterprise, will share his experiences as an entrepreneur. Not just his successes, but also his missteps.
He admits to spending years on the losing side of business, being a part of seven failed start-ups. But in 2003 he co-founded Falcon Containers, a successful company that buys and refurbishes shipping containers for office space, temporary housing, and storage.
"My biggest message to the students is that it's OK to fail. In all likelihood you will fail at some point," says Shang. "As long as when you do, you learn from it, get back up, and keep trying."
One of the keys to the company's success was setting core values. "Understanding and being committed to integrity with how we hire employees and interact with each other, our suppliers, and the community were important. We do all of this by strictly following The Four-Way Test," he says.
Camp Enterprise also presents business concepts according to Rotary's Four-Way Test, which stimulates the learning of entrepreneurship as well as personal values, says Bagby.
"Being successful in business doesn't just mean making money," he says. "We emphasize the development of skills necessary to not only succeed in business but also in functioning as contributing members of our society."