Learning to be captains of enterprise: Statewide program gives high school students business experience

John Trombetta and other business people saw a problem 36 years ago when young adults entered the workforce.

“So many people didn’t get it,” said Trombetta, president and CEO for the Erie-based Foundation for Free Enterprise Education. “They sometimes didn’t get customer service. They didn’t get professionalism and how to run a business.”

Trombetta and his peers came up with a solution: Pennsylvania Free Enterprise Week, a program that now simulates years of business situations for high school juniors and seniors in one week.

Teams of 16 to 18 students act as senior leadership for imaginary companies that face simulated challenges and make business decisions. Trombetta said 2,106 Pennsylvania students participated in the program this summer.

“The goal is for students to learn how business works within the free enterprise system in a nonthreatening environment,” Trombetta said.

Two of the 21 Centre County students who participated in this year’s program spoke Wednesday at a breakfast at Celebration Hall.

State College junior Andrew Hoag was voted by his group to be CEO of a backpack-making company called Straps, and Bald Eagle senior Nicholas Carlson worked on the financial team of a GPS computing company called Global Guides.

“It was overwhelming,” Carlson said of the experience. “Our schedules said we had free time, and we spent our free time working on our business.”

Hoag said choosing senior management wasn’t easy because groups are designed so that students are all strangers to each other. Time management also became a challenge as the week progressed.

“Electing people for positions underneath me was difficult, because you don’t really know anyone yet,” Hoag said.

“I had to make sure I could trust everyone in the positions they were in to make good decisions. I oversaw everything and made the final OKs on everything, but I had to trust that they would make the right decisions to bring to me. You also had less time to make decisions at the end of the week.”

Advisers such as Lesley Kistner, communications director for Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, guided the teams.

“When I first got the folders of information about how the week would go, I wondered how the students would be able to keep up with it,” Kistner said. “Then I wondered how I would keep up with the schedule. It’s tremendous to see their transition. They learn as much about themselves as they learned about the free-enterprise system.”

Students who attend the program are sponsored by businesses and individuals from around the state. Phillip Zimmerman, a retired businessman, has acted as an adviser, judge and speaker for the program for about 30 years. He also individually sponsors students like Carlson for the program.

“To be mixed up with these kids three generations beneath me, it motivates me and it’s worth it for them,” Zimmerman said. “The growth we see in them is astounding. They learn to professionally work and run a business, and that’s what we want for them when they get into their own businesses or someone else’s business.”