According to the 2016 Fairfax Youth Survey Report, over 60,000 Fairfax County students face depressive symptoms every year, and over one-third of the students reported experiencing a high level of stress in the past month.
When the five students participating in Junior Achievement of Greater Washington’s 2017 JA Company Program, sponsored by the Hartford Foundation, came across this statistic, they knew they had found the issue they wanted to address.
The participants this year are (in alphabetical order) Sasha Duckworth, Zoree Jones, Srijay Kasturi, Emily Smith, and Kurien Thomas. The students came from different schools across the region and brought with them a diversity of strengths that would prove useful when building their company.
When it came time to figure out what problem they wanted to tackle during the program, Kurien explained how, “the team discussed all sorts of problems we saw in the community—starting broad and then slowly narrowing it down.”
He described this process, of coming up with the team’s company and purpose, as “very challenging.” He brought up how during this time, the JA Volunteer Mentors continually emphasized the importance of identifying and filling a need when building a company.
“We knew that we wanted to focus on students as our target market, mainly because it is a demographic that we know a lot about and is underserved in a number of ways,” said Sasha.
Kurien explained how their first idea was to develop a “summer learning kit” aimed at preventing summer learning loss.
“With our original idea for the summer learning kit, we realized that none of the team members knew much about how to structure an interactive educational program, nor what STEM concepts are appropriate for middle schoolers to be learning,” said Sasha. “We started to get stressed out over what was going to be in the box and how we were going to market it when we thought, ‘Hey, why not create a kit that helps teens de-stress?’”
That’s when they started researching other problems in education and came across the topic of mental health and how it affects a student’s ability to perform in school.
“Every team member knows at least one person who suffers from anxiety, depression, or another form of mental illness,” said Sasha. “Our personal connection to this issue not only gave us perspective as to how important this problem is, but also gave us insight into how we could best serve this market.”
Zoree echoed these sentiments saying, “Teen stress and depression is an issue that each of us has seen and/or experienced firsthand, and because it hits so close to home it is something we’ve become very passionate about. Solving the problems that teens are facing today will no doubt help to create a healthier generation and a better tomorrow.”
Sasha went on to note that the team felt that “mental illness, especially in teens, is an issue that the general public frequently ignores or downplays and many people are left suffering because of the scarcity of mental health resources available to them.” The team knew that they had found their issue, so they came up with a way to address this need with a service: the Pick-Me-Up Box.
According to Pick-Me-Up’s website, their mission is to “promote self-care and help teens discover positive approaches to life’s challenges.” They envision “a society where adolescents and adults can understand the signs of early depression and work towards creating a positive environment for themselves.”
When it came time for the team members to discuss and delegate each of their roles in the business, the team had to evaluate each other’s personal strengths and come to consensus on the role person would fill.
Kurien was nominated as the CEO by his teammates.
“I was very surprised and absolutely honored to have been selected by my peers to head the Leadership team of our company,” said Kurien. “Each member of our team is a leader in their own schools and communities, and they are all so hardworking and involved. Getting to work with my team has been such a blessing. I can depend on each of them to pull their own weight and work to make this company successful.”
While Kurien was nominated as CEO, Emily filled the role of Finances, Sasha was nominated to take on Marketing, Srijay was named head of the Supply Chain, and Zoree was named head of Sales for the company.
“I was selected as our head of marketing and I love it!” said Sasha. “I get to personally oversee the appearance of our box, marketing materials, and company overall so that we create a product and brand that's engaging, caring, and serves the needs of teens struggling with stress or mental illness. I also get to speak with our target market directly, and the outpouring of support we've gotten and the personal stories people have told us are incredibly inspiring.”
Throughout the process of developing the product, each team member had to communicate with organizations, conduct a lot of market research, and plan out several financial details.
“While we all have certain tasks delegated to us respective to our individual roles, a lot of our work has a lot of overlap because of the size of our team,” said Sasha. “Although I'm the head of marketing, sometimes I'll find myself doing a financial document or doing research on supply chain issues. Our ability to work together and do a number of different jobs has been the key to our success.”
But there’s no doubt the team faced a number of challenges throughout the JA Company Program journey. A challenge that came up when speaking with several of the teammates was the time constraints of the program.
“We have learned that although 13 weeks may initially appear long, it goes by quicker than expected,” said Zoree. “There was a lot we had to accomplish, including creating and vetting the idea, sourcing products, financing the business, and marketing and selling the product. In the long run, however, I have found that the deadlines have been helpful in giving us structure.”
Sasha added, “We were given four months to build a business, create a business plan (and all of its individual components, such as the financial plan and the marketing plan), and make thousands of dollars in sales. All of the individual decisions we've had to make, requirements we've had to fulfill, and things we've had to plan for have taken up a large part of our schedules and has caused us to embed the Company Program into our everyday lives, outside of our two hour weekly meetings. I feel that time is our most limiting factor, and our ability to work around the time crunch has proven to be our biggest challenge.”
When asked to discuss the single greatest lesson learned through the JA Company Program, each team member offered a different, but equally important takeaways.
Kurien said, “The importance of knowing your customer. More specifically, my experiences at the Company Program have taught me how to accommodate for and communicate to a target audience.”
According to Zoree, “The most important lesson I’ve learned from [this experience] is that it is never too early to start dreaming, and working on something you are passionate about. A year ago, my dream of starting a business was just that- a dream. I never would have imagined that I would later have the opportunity, as a freshman in high school, to address business leaders and luminaries, learn what it takes to succeed in business, and of course, start a company of my own!”
And finally, Sasha noted that, “The greatest lesson I've learned is that I need to be responsible. I feel that [the JA Company Program] has put me in a position where the things that I do (and don't do) affect other people, which has driven me to do the best that I can and put in as much effort as possible into the tasks that I preform. Overall, the new responsibility that the Company Program has given me has positively impacted my personal development, as I see myself becoming a better, and more responsible, person because of JA.”
Learn more about how JA programs are transforming and empowering the future workforce by visiting www.myJA.org.