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ROI - It takes a village: Wells Fargo backs JA’s BizTown project, which helps kids learn ins and outs of hometown economics

High school volunteers, along with corporate sponsorships, help JA reach its mission and goals. - Photos courtesy Junior Achievement of New Jersey

The 12-week classroom program created by Junior Achievement of New Jersey is a strong start. It teaches tens of thousands of 5th-graders around New Jersey the basics of business finance.

The learning, however, comes alive when those students make an all-day
visit to BizTown, JA’s 8,000-square-foot simulation of a town center located in its 22,000-square-foot Edison Education Center.

BizTown features banks, restaurants, and retail shops — all set up as they would be in their own hometowns. The students start by electing a mayor; the others then assume roles throughout the town, seeing firsthand what it’s like to purchase insurance, pay employees and vendors (and hopefully raise revenue).

Jim Horne, who recently took over as CEO of JA New Jersey, said he was blown away when he saw BizTown up close for the first time.

Jim Horne

“It’s a real interactive experience,” he said. “Students could be the vice president of a bank, the head of an architecture firm, a DJ, a restaurant manager — even the mayor.”

“There’s a variety of different businesses set up with a goal of taking what they learned in the classroom and seeing how it plays out in real life. We say, ‘Here’s your day to run a business.’ And then, they are judged at the end of the day on how much revenue they have generated and if they have properly paid their bills.”

JA serves more than 80,000 New Jersey students statewide annually during the school year. Horne said BizTown, which is one of its premier programs, will reach more than 7,000 students this school year.

Horne said it couldn’t be done without corporate sponsorship.

“We are a lean and mean organization,” Horne said. “We only have 14 full-time employees. So, the corporate sponsorship that we receive here is tremendous in helping us achieve our mission and goal.

“What we appreciate even more is the value add that we think we’re bringing to our corporate partners is an appreciation of our work and an understanding of the impact it has in their communities.”

Wells Fargo has long been a supporter of BizTown, contributing over $150,000 for the last three years to the program. Its efforts are much more than writing a check. The bank has a simulated branch location set up in BizTown that always is manned by Wells Fargo employees.

Wanda Saez, senior vice president, social impact and community relations for New Jersey at Wells Fargo, said BizTown gives Wells Fargo employees an opportunity to help the next generation gain financial literacy.

“We have worked with Junior Achievement for many years, and what I love about BizTown is that this is real life,” she said. “The children in Biz Town have the ability to help run and/or work in the businesses. They also have the opportunity to be consumers as well.”

It’s an eye-opening experience, Saez said.

“After they cash their check at the bank, they have to buy insurance, pay their utility bill and perform other real-life activities,” she said. “I love seeing their expressions when they realize how expensive a utility bill actually is. 

“For me, the JA program really helps students understand financial decisions and how these decisions affect their lives.” 

Horne said the contributions of Wells Fargo and others go far.

“The great thing we love about our Wells Fargo partners is that they enjoy coming in and working in BizTown,” he said. “They’ll bring over 20-30 volunteers and join our students for the day.”

Horne said he feels the value goes both ways.

5th-graders from around New Jersey make all-day visits to BizTown, Junior Achievement of New Jersey’s 8,000-square-foot simulation of a town center in Edison, which teaches them the basics of business finance.

“The key to being successful is demonstrating to corporate sponsors that you’re having impact on the communities and the individuals that you serve,” he said. “JA New Jersey has been able to accomplish that with BizTown.”

Students in the BizTown program discuss the roles that citizens, workers and consumers play in a free-enterprise system — as well as the rights and responsibilities that come with being part of a community.

They get an understanding of basic business practices — and the soft skills that are necessary to be successful in the work world.

And they don’t just read about it.

Students, who come in with little financial literacy, get to experience in real time the roles they may see their parents and caregivers playing.

Roleplaying with corporate sponsors is a key, Horne said.

“While the young person is making decisions about the business, they’re doing it in a conversation with our adult volunteers,” he said. “There are conversations about how this happens in real life. There are conversations about the importance of customer service. There are conversations about how you keep records.”

And, through that, there’s an introduction to roles in society.

“The young people are finding out about what it takes to run an architecture firm or a Chick-fil-A,” Horne said. “They are getting an exposure to opportunities and an understanding — at an early age — of potential career paths.”

Saez said this is why Wells Fargo is so happy to help.

“Students can connect the dots between what they learn in school and the real world,” she said. “We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to help them do that.”


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