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Pathfinder reflects: JA's Katherin Elam is retiring after guiding generations of young entrepreneurs

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Video Courtesy of Junior Achievement USA

One of Katherin Elam’s favorite moments is when she gets to ask a student: What is your dream, and how can we help?

The longtime leader of Junior Achievement — a nonprofit with a mission of introducing kids to entrepreneurship, financial literacy and career readiness — said the chance to inspire young people across the region has been one of the drivers of her career.

“You get to see how you can make a difference in another generation. Or a couple of generations now,” said Elam, who’s been with the organization for 24 years.

Katherin Elam


“It’s about finding that job that’s right for you,” she said. “As somebody told me a long time ago, there’s always going to be a certain college or a certain training program that’s suited for you. You just have to have the time and somebody to help you go through it.”

Junior Achievement, which has been operating in the Roanoke Valley since 1957, aims to help set students on that path — through classroom programs that offer real-world skill building, job shadowing opportunities, internships and other initiatives.

“A lot of times we talk about entrepreneurship,” Elam said. “But I would say it’s really about innovation. It’s about getting students to imagine what’s possible for them.”

Elam, a Minnesota native who made Roanoke her home over three decades ago, was working in the nonprofit world in 1998 when she was encouraged to put her name in the mix to serve as president of Junior Achievement of Southwest Virginia, which is based in Roanoke.

She recalled being asked to describe her management style during the vetting process. “I said, I don’t think it’s in any management book, but I just know that I hope to respect individuals and the talent they have. I want to be able to learn from each of them and from what they offer to Junior Achievement, and I hope we can work together as a team.”

The chapter would go on to have an extraordinary rate of retention among its staffers; some of the employees who Elam first met when she started almost a quarter-century ago are still with the agency.

The organization also worked with some 220,000 local students in that time.

“Katherin has led and grown Junior Achievement of Southwest Virginia with unwavering passion and persistence for twenty-four years and has created a remarkable footprint both within the organization and in the Roanoke Valley,” said Sam Oakey, a local business owner and current board chair of JA.

Elam, 67, plans to retire in November. The charity is in the midst of a national search for her successor that was launched last spring when she announced her decision.

In an interview with The Roanoke Times, Elam talked about her time with Junior Achievement. The edited Q&A that follows comes from that conversation.

JA’s history and mission

We’re part of a national organization that has been in place for 103 years now. And it all started because several businessmen, back in the early 1900’s or so, said, you know, we need to find a way to help our high school students be better prepared to go into the world of work. Their solution was to create a program that was called the JA Company at the time.

It brought in business leaders who were advisors to high school students. It was an after-school club where they would literally sit down and talk about how a company is run. Every time they met, they were learning how to do another phase of the business. And they really learned things from the ground up.

In the early ‘80s, they had more and more students who weren’t available in the evenings. We started seeing a trend of more students playing sports and doing other things. So then it became a classroom program. And we went from just being in high schools to being K through 12.

Our lessons are very much in tune with grade levels now, and what our teachers need with the Standards of Learning. Teachers can select from the programs based on what they want to concentrate on. We have three points that we cover throughout JA: financial literacy, entrepreneurship and workforce readiness.

Junior Achievement is still very much a volunteer-run organization. We train them and give them the materials to go into the classrooms and teach the lessons. Having teachers from the business world makes the program more responsive and enhances it. I could put 40 people out in classrooms and each one of them, we hope, will add their work experience and their career background to the lessons they’re teaching.

Because that’s really where it sticks. The students get to hear their stories — how they had to work hard or the importance of having transferable skills that can move from one industry to another. Those stories resonate with our students. And that’s why Junior Achievement started out over 100 years ago; having business people come in and share what they can offer. We continue to try to use that model.

Why it’s right time to retire

I think what made it feel like the right time is that, just a week or two ago, we started our 65th year as an organization. And you have to ask yourself why do things thrive? It’s because of leadership and because of people.

It’s good to get new leadership in periodically. Now is a good time. I can tell that we’re ready to probably do even more with technology going forward. And I’m not afraid of that. But I feel like there are other people who can come in and probably enhance this program even more with some of the new options that we’ll be rolling out to meet the needs of our educators.

I’ve also had a couple of things happen in life that have made me think about other things I’d like to have the opportunity to do. Sadly enough, over the last year, my husband and I have lost some of our friends and been to several funerals. That starts you thinking about whether you have done everything you want to do. I’d like to spend more time with my husband. I’d like to get out and just do more being outdoors and seeing friends. My ultimate goal is to travel to Greece. That’s at the top of my bucket list.

I have enjoyed this job. And I will continue to want to be a classroom volunteer. I will always be available to JA.

What she’ll remember most

I have such a high regard for the educators in our community, as well as our wonderful donors, because whatever we raise determines the impact that we can have. I’m not originally from the area. I came here from Minneapolis. So, I had to learn a lot about the community and about the people here. And, you know, we have so many people who are passionate about helping young people. The believers in our youth have been inspirational to me. And that has been the best part of this job is to rub elbows with those individuals, and to see our students actually go on and become strong workers.

That’s the part that’s been rewarding. Every year, there is always a nice surprise or a nice person who approaches you and says, you know what, I did Junior Achievement. And it’s so fun to hear their stories and what it meant to them.

In JA, we say we teach our students about being a worker, a consumer and a citizen. Those are the key things that are kind of a theme. Starting with our elementary program and, obviously, evolving as our students get older.

We have great volunteers who come out and share with our students. There are more and more people out there now looking to find a way to get into the schools, and talk with kids about the potential workforce they’re looking for. And we talk with them about considering the growth and the impact of a career. You know, 20 years ago, we didn’t have anybody talking about Google or Amazon. But a lot changes, and it creates new types of jobs.

We’re hoping the kids that we work with will understand those opportunities they have in front of them. In the long run, we’re trying to give them opportunities.

“A lot of times we talk about entrepreneurship. But I would say it's really about innovation. It’s about getting students to imagine what’s possible for them.”

-- Katherin Elam, longtime leader of Junior Achievement

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