In the early 1970s, a small group of Washington business leaders led by Yelm grocer, Hal Wolf, decided it was time to integrate business owners with high school students. They realized that our free enterprise market-based economic system would not survive unless it was reinvigorated with a consistent injection of young entrepreneurs.
At the time, our nation had been deeply divided by the Vietnam War and an anti-establishment, anti-business fervor. Wolf, a state legislator, saw trouble ahead for our way of life.
Central Washington University President Jim Brooks shared that fear, and together they launched Washington Business Week in 1975. The Association of Washington Business, our state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturing association, became the sponsor.
In selling the idea to AWB’s Board, Wolf and Brooks had to answer the question: What does business have to do with education?
Their answer was, “Everything.”
The success of any business depends in large part on having skilled, knowledgeable and motivated employees. And motivated employees can use their knowledge, skills and work experience to climb the economic ladder and build a secure future for themselves and their families.
To Wolf and Brooks, putting business owners with high school students was a learning opportunity for both and it helped ensure that our way of life would be handed down from generation to generation.
Students learned hands-on about running a business. In the process, they met other students from around the state and let their creativity flow. For business leaders, it was a chance to get to know the next generation of entrepreneurs and inspire them to take a risk and go into business.
Washington Business Week started as a one-week summer camp on the campus of Central Washington University in Ellensburg. High school juniors formed 10-person companies with a business leader assigned to each group. In simulations, they developed innovative products or services and marketed them using business principals.
After a few days, the students – most of whom had never been on a college campus – became inspired and excited by their own accomplishments and the realization that they had the power to change their lives for the better.
One student who had never considered college said his experience at Business Week had opened his eyes to new possibilities. “Now, I can’t wait to go to college.”
Another said, “No matter what I do in my life outside Business Week, Business Week has taught me how to do better.”
That is called “The magic of Business Week.” It worked then and it still does today.
Over the last 40 years, Washington Business Week has spread to Gonzaga, Western Washington and Pacific Lutheran as well as 22 other states, Australia and Poland.
Business Week started during the Cold War, five years before Lech Walesa climbed atop the gate at Gdansk’s Shipyard in Poland and sparked a workers’ revolution. Walesa and his fellow shipyard workers captured worldwide attention and shook the very foundation of the Communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain.
In Poland at the time, capitalism was forbidden and the Communist party bosses controlled everything. People starved and agriculture and industrial output was dismal.
Today, Poland has one of Europe’s strongest economies and shopping in downtown Warsaw is like going to a modern mall in Spokane. Polish leaders like Gdynia Mayor Wojciech Szczurek embraced Business Week to give Polish students the chance to experience the rewards of the free enterprise system.
Just as the founders of Washington Business Week saw education as the key to our future 40 years ago, we all need to remember that education and entrepreneurship are joined at the hip. They need one another more than ever in this fast-paced, global economy.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.