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Celebration of Service

IBM volunteers help student entrepreneurs start up

In Toronto, Kin-Mei Seong leads advisors in guiding business-minded students

For five years, Kin-Mei Seong, a sales management advisor for IBM in Toronto, Canada, has coached young students in running their own businesses—real businesses that serve market needs and generate revenue.

“For the most part, there’s no formal training at the secondary school level in financial literacy, or entrepreneurship,” says Kin-Mei. “Junior Achievement’s ‘Company Program—A Student Venture’ gives students the experience of launching an actual start-up company. These are learning experiences that students don’t get in a classroom.”

The program, also known as the Company Venture Program, is offered by Junior Achievement (JA), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering work-readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy in young people.

Starting a business, not staring at a whiteboard

Kin-Mei started as a volunteer with JA after getting an email from another IBM volunteer looking for some help. “I started with JA participating in running a different program involving presentations for younger students, emphasizing the range of possibilities if they stay in school,” says Kin-Mei. “When I learned about the Venture Program, it was the perfect fit for me since it combined my business background with my love of volunteering—plus the sessions with the students are held here at IBM, so no travel required.”

The Venture Program runs for most of the school year, beginning in October and ending in May with an awards banquet to honor the student leaders and award recognition such as “Best Business Plan” and “Company of the Year” in Canada.

Individual companies are made up of five to seven students who become executives in their start-up venture, collaborating on everything a small business would consider—product selection, audience segmentation, marketing strategy, profit margin, staff positions, sales strategy.

Adult volunteers act as advisors offering guidance from their own business experiences. However, Kin-Mei points out that “students thinking they’re coming to stare at a whiteboard quickly learn everything is in their hands—it’s their business.” She recalls some creative and socially responsible products from her teams including a necessities kits with items such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, which could be purchased as a donation for those in need.

Kin-Mei is now the lead IBM advisor for the Venture Program, and every year recruits ten to twelve other volunteers to be mentors—she uses IBM’s On Demand Community to help spread the word, the company’s global community that links the skills of over 200,000 IBM employee and retiree volunteers with access to IBM technology and training.

Student entrepreneurs “profit,” as do advisors

In 2008, Kin-Mei’s team was one of two Canadian Venture Program companies selected as “company of the year.” She recalls that “on that day, to see the kids on stage being awarded for their hard work was just amazing.” An IBM Community Grant supported their effort by sending the team to the national competition in Boston, where the students’ business skills were further sharpened presenting their business plan and results to panels of judges.

Another highlight of her JA experience was learning one of her former students had been given a full scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “It is unbelievable that you’ve interacted with brilliant minds at such a young age,” says Kin-Mei. “And then to see how far they go, it’s the reason why I keep coming back. It’s the interactions with the students that are really a motivator, it’s just exciting.”

Commenting on her impact, Ryan Shaw, a senior account manager at Junior Achievement of Central Ontario, says that Kin-Mei “is one of our most valued, positive and hard working volunteers.”

This year Kin-Mei and her partner advisors—Ben Kane, Ryan Lausman, and Andre Vittorio—were named JA’s “Advisory Team of the Year” for the Venture Program in Central Ontario. One of the student entrepreneurs wrote that “the greatest thing about this mentor team is how well its members work together. I often boast to friends at other JA companies about how amazing my advisors are, and that no one deserves this award more than this group of outstanding mentors.”

“I believe we’re playing a role preparing our future leaders in Canada,” says Kin-Mei. “Every year, I challenge myself to change the delivery of the program to give it even greater impact and attract more students.”

More mentors and volunteers are also welcomed for the Venture Program, and Kin-Mei suggests that “even if you’re only remotely interested, just come to a session, and watch. From the outside looking in, you have a presumption of what it involves or what you think you will feel, but when you’re actually involved and you see the value that you give, the reward is ten times over.”

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.