Anthony Pittman recalls his visit to Target’s Minneapolis headquarters. One room mimicked the setup of a store floor, with products placed near the front door in a customer’s line of vision while others were positioned toward the back so that customers would have to go deeper into the store, passing other showcased items.
Traveling to Target with his peers was a first-of-its-kind experience for Pittman, a junior at Milwaukee’s Golda Meir High School, who saw the real-world application of lessons he learned in class during the summer at the Wisconsin School of Business.
“Going on these trips and learning about the different business majors made me more familiar with everything I’ve been taught,” says Pittman. “The visit made my interest in marketing grow even more. It’s like your first impression. It draws people in.”
Now in his second year, Pittman is one of fifty high school students across two cohorts participating in the Business Emerging Leaders (BEL) program, an initiative that helps prepare top-performing students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds for a college education, and eventually a career, in business. A gift in 2014 from an anonymous donor committed to helping students of diverse backgrounds join the WSB community helped lay the initial groundwork, and the program launched last year with 30 students and added a new cohort of 20 students this summer.
Beginning after sophomore year, students spend several weeks each summer for three years on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. They learn about business fundamentals, visit industry leaders, explore the majors available at WSB, and build relationships and leadership skills with their fellow students. Students who successfully complete the program are able to apply for admittance and a full four-year tuition scholarship to WSB.
Honing career focus
Rachel Brooks, assistant director of the BEL program, says that visits to Fortune 500 companies—like Google and Accenture in Chicago, as well as Target in Minneapolis—help students determine a focus for their undergraduate careers. It also puts the students in a position to envision the kind of companies they see themselves working for someday.
Heriberto Hernandez, a second-year student from Jones College Prep High School in Chicago, says the group learned about how the companies function and the services they provide, as well as what the work culture is like. A company like Accenture might be a better fit for him, he feels, since its atmosphere is more traditional compared to a business like Google where the environment is more laid-back.
Kaela Daichendt, a student at Chicago’s Lane Technical College Preparatory High School, and other BEL classmates had the opportunity to Skype with General Mills and participate in career guidance and planning activities with Target employees.
With the first-year students returning, the BEL program added two new courses to the curriculum designed to complement each other—business communication and business analytics.
“They’re learning real-life skills applicable to the 10 majors here at WSB,” Brooks says. “We’re teaching key abilities like how to write a proposal or read an Excel spreadsheet, or how to analyze and interpret data and turn that data into a visual that your audience can easily interpret.”
Students also got the chance to incorporate what they learned in the classroom and through the industry visits in entrepreneurial competitions. New BEL students created a project and a business plan to pitch to investors and Badger “sharks” during Badger Tank, an adaptation of the popular television show, “Shark Tank.” Returning BEL students had the opportunity to face off during the case competition, which required more in-depth business knowledge and involved students to think of innovative ways to pitch the same product.
Support beyond the summer
The vision for the BEL program is about providing a network of support for students that would last from the time of their first visit to WSB as a high school student to their first year as an enrolled undergraduate.
After the summer session concludes, Brooks and BEL mentors check in monthly or bimonthly with the students during the school year via phone call or Skype to touch base, see how their academic and extracurricular activities are going, and to keep the positive connection with WSB alive.
“That was one of the things Rachel really wanted to instill in the students, that we were there to support them the whole time, not just during the summer,” says Vladimir Pak (BBA ’18), who is in his second year as a BEL residential mentor. “It keeps them on track if they’re feeling a little down or complacent.”
Brooks says it can be as simple as asking how a math test went or how they are coping with life issues that can affect their studies and their outlook. Oftentimes, students panic because they are feeling pressured and stressed.
“It’s really the pressure of being that first-generation college student, that first generation immigrant,” Brooks says. “Being the first—in a lot of things—can be very scary. We just reassure them by putting people around them that have already done it. And we reinforce to them that they are already above standard. We focus on helping them accept themselves for who they are, but let them know they have room to grow and that’s okay.”
As Brooks visits high schools to recruit BEL participants, she invites current students to recruit with her when she’s in their community. This past year, she reached all of the schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota that enrolled BEL students.
Parents have also been extremely supportive during the entire process, Brooks says, which is often new to them. She frequently gets calls from parents asking what courses their children should be taking at their individual schools.
“They want to make sure their student is going in the right direction. They support what the program does and always want to make sure students are getting done what they need to get done.”
Designing their futures
Academics aside, the program is about building leadership skills, encouraging students to push themselves, learn to take risks, and g
ive back to others along the way.
It’s gratifying, Brooks says, to see a student leave his hometown for the first time, to take his first plane ride and know that BEL made that transformative experience possible.
Or to watch students synthesize their newly acquired business skills with their own plans and dreams, like Daichendt, who hopes to someday start her own nonprofit to help foster families and foster kids.
“We’ve been a foster family—my family has taken in 35 kids—so I’ve seen the need for that firsthand,” Daichendt says.
It’s also about the experience of growing through the BEL program and entering college together—the “family bond”—as Pittman calls it.
“When I come here, I’m really grateful to be in this program because of the business knowledge and all that it offers,” he says. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Read more about how the BEL program prepares students for a business education.