In December 2010, I will be graduating from Marquette University with degrees in Marketing and Entrepreneurship and entering the business world. How should I spend my last summer of "freedom"? I knew right away I wanted to spend it with Lead America. Lead America is the nation's premier youth leadership organization. I decided to be a Team Leader for the Global Business and Entrepreneurship program. I felt confident about the summer since I am a Lead America alumni myself. I also worked as a Team Leader for the same program in the summer of 2008. However, part of me was nervous. New students, new venue (I have never been to Stanford or California for that matter). Before I knew it, all my worries disappeared.
Founded in 1891, Stanford is one of America's most desirable schools and a perfect venue for a Lead America conference. Since Lead America attracts High School students that are the best in the nation, many of them are very capable of being accepted into such a remarkable university. The beautiful campus is located in Stanford, California, just outside of Palo Alto and offers 8,180 acres of some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen on a college campus. From the main Quad, to Hoover Tower, Stanford's campus was a magnet for our students who didn't seem to mind the 15 minute walk from their residence at Roble Hall to our breakout rooms at Lane History Corner and continuously asked for free time to explore the campus further with their friends. I found it interesting that most students did not like the Cafeteria food even though it offered a daily salad bar, fruit bar which included unlimited Watermalon, Melon, Cantaloupe, Pineapple, Build your own burger bar, and much more. Out of all Lead America venues I have visited, only Georgetown's had better food in my mind.
Speakers & Off - Sites
During the ten day conference, our students were lucky to hear from San Francisco State University professors in the subjects of Business Ethics, Marketing, Brand Management and more. Many of the topics taught by the professors were ones I recently learned about in college so as a Team Leader, it was important to prepare them for each speaker in order for them to get the most value out of their lectures. They also heard from a number of entrepreneurs, including Co - Founder and CFO of Box.net, Dylan Smith. Dylan told them his exciting story of starting his own company while a student at Duke University and then moving to Silicon Valley and further cultivating his company with the help of Mark Cuban's angel investment. He provided our students with tips about investors and taught them the importance of treating employees well and seeking mentors throughout your career. He was later rated as the students' favorite speaker.
The students' first off-site visit was to San Francisco where they enjoyed Crissy field (beach area where the movie "Pursuit of Happyness" was taped), Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge, and Pier 39. For many of our students and staff (including me), it was the first time visiting San Francisco. Our perception of sunny, warm California was misleading as the Bay area was in the low 60's with winds that threatened to lift up our smallest students (not really, but they were pretty strong).
Another off site was to the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank where students received a guided tour and were able to see the process of receiving, counting, and handling millions of dollars as well as the security behind such a task. They also saw the most complete exhibit of American paper money in the U.S. Interesting bills included a $1,000 bill called the big watermelon which is worth over $2,000,000 today as well as a bill featuring a Native American which sparked a 15 year battle between two tribes. While my group was hanging out at the Embarcadero after the bank, a few boys on my team bought me a bracelet that says: "Reuven." It meant a lot to me and I wear it every day. Museums included the Disney Museum which was an interesting tribute to the success of Walt, who created the Disney empire and the Intel Museum which included many interactive activities to celebrate the company's success over the years.
These all sounds like great off sites (and they were) but the students overwhelmingly chose Facebook as their favorite. We received a guided tour through their second largest building in Palo Alto which was home to their engineering team as well as CEO Mark Zuckerberg's conference room. Most of all, our students fall in love with the company's fun and relaxed culture. At Facebook, every idea is valued and considered and employees may write any new ideas or suggestions on a special board. Furthermore, they have special "Hack nights" where an entire team gets together, orders a lot of food, and works on anything they want (new features, etc.) If I am not mistaken, Facebook chat was the product of one of those nights. When asked about all the RipSticks (funny looking skateboards) that are laying around, it was explained to our students that workers may ride those through the office. Facebook also has an outdoor area which includes a Basketball court, Volleyball area, Horseshoes and more. The workers may relieve some stress by going outside and playing one of the sports. They also compete in a league against other Silicon Valley companies under the team name "Facekickers." A number of kitchen areas around the building include free bottled drinks and food and our students were able to choose their favorite drinks before hearing from Facebook's top engineers talk more about the company (One of the speakers left Microsoft to join Facebook at it's beginning and invented the News Feed). When asked about Facebook's constant layout changes, the engineer explained that they are placing more emphasis not on the HS and College students but on the 80 year old Grandma that is joining the site for the first time. If there are 10 features, they find a design that best fits those features. 3 more features are added and all of a sudden the design/layout is not so functional. At the end of the day, a student was asked to imagine the coolest feature he could ever imagine being on Facebook one day and then was asked to make a decision: using Facebook with this awesome feature, or having his or her best friend on Facebook. Despite all the current features, it is the friend community that makes Facebook so great and that is why the emphasis is placed on making the site functional for everyone rather than constant feature updates. Needless to say, all of our students want to work for Facebook now.
The Business Plan
A major part of the ten day conference is spent on a business plan simulation. The students are required to invent a new, socially responsible idea and produce a 9-10 page business plan and present that plan to a panel of venture capitalists. This summer, Team A (lead by Team Leader Jesse) created a product called the "Eco-Card" which looks and acts like a credit card but is used to electronically place receipts on it during purchases in order to save paper which is used to print receipts which end up in the trash anyways. Team C (lead by Team Leader Janki) created "EnviroGym" which is a fitness gym powered by the energy which is created when humans use the machines. Team B (lead by me) created a product called "Stryke SuperSpykes) which is a retractable cleat for kids. It is so amazing to see High School students from all over the country produce such smart, organized, and detailed plans in less than 10 days. Facilitating the simulation and reading their plans make me feel confident in their abilities to be ethical business leaders in the future.
The off sites, the speakers, the campus, and the business plan are all great, but the most rewarding part of the conference comes to me from my team. This conference, I had 17 amazing students from all around the country. On day one, I told them they will work hard, they will have fun, and they will be the best they can be. They all looked confused, nervous, yet excited. Through a number of different leadership activities they came together as team, realizing that its better to work together, use one another as resources, and the results will be much better. My students will tell you that the hardest part was in the beginning; having to juggle a new schedule and learning how to agree on a business idea (there were many good ideas and it was hard for them to choose one that everybody was comfortable with). Nine days later, I was looking at 17 friends, leaders, and business minded people. No longer were they nervous or confused. They were proud of their accomplishments, and I was so proud of them. The way they worked on their plan, the way they cheered on one another and held one another accountable made me confident I made a great decision to come back to Lead America this summer. The way they supported one another during their simulation time and the sacrifices they were willing to make were unbelievable and were the keys to the success of their plan (The president of the team would spend hours in his room working on our plan at night and when time was running out, the entire team would gather by the person who is working on finishing his or her part and would cheer on that person until he or she finishes.) In the beginning, told my team that tomorrow will always come so they should live every day of the conference to its fullest. I hope they left the conference with no regrets. I know I did.
Teams A, B, C
This was my fifth Lead America Global Business & Entrepreneurship conference. Previous conferences were at Pace University, NYC and Bentley University, Boston. This was not only my first West Coast conference, but it was by far the smallest. While past conferences all included 125+ students and 8 Team Leaders, this conference consisted of 50 students and 3 Team Leaders. While I wasn't used to this situation, I remained positive and quickly enjoyed the benefits of my new experience. I quickly learned that West Coast conference kids are different than East Coast conference kids. They are much more relaxed, perhaps less demanding, and go with the flow easier. The small number of students made it feel like one BIG team. Closer relationships were formed between students of different teams, and less "clicks" were formed. It was awesome to see everyone getting along and feeling like one big family in the process. Luckily for us, there were ZERO student issues throughout the conference. Today, the students keep in touch through phone calls, Facebook, and even multi - person video chats on a nightly basis.I have no doubt in my mind that these students will all be successful in the future, and that our paths will unite again.
If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. - John Quincy Adams