Junior Achievement’s Connie Lanzl is dedicated to readying the workforce of the future
By Elizabeth Pandolfi
When Connie Lanzl left her career in independent school development to join Junior Achievement of Upstate South Carolina as the organization’s president in 2010, she brought the skill set and the experience to take the organization into its next phase of growth.
But that wasn’t the reason she took the job. As is often the case in the nonprofit sector, Lanzl’s decision was mission-driven. “The opportunity to impact a much broader, more diverse group of children than I had before was intriguing to me,” she says. “As was the idea of looking at impact not only from an academic perspective, but a lifelong career perspective.”
Lanzl came to Junior Achievement, or JA, from Christ Church Episcopal School, where she served as vice president for advancement for 12 years. Prior to that, she led the development departments at two other independent schools: Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, Pa., and Nisimachi International School in Tokyo, Japan.
And while her work at JA requires many of the same skills that she honed while working in schools, there are certain significant differences that will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in the nonprofit sector. “We’re a smaller, self-contained nonprofit. We’re responsible for all the fundraising, the programs, events—everything we do,” she says. “When I worked in schools, there were certain things I didn’t have to worry about in my position, like the technology and finances. So all of that was new to me.”
JA is a youth education organization that delivers programs in financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and work-readiness skills to children from kindergarten through the 12th grade within public schools.
The way JA operates is by bringing in community and corporate volunteers to teach classes to students directly. The classes are heavy on activities and participation, so the students learn through doing. For example, one of their work readiness courses, which focuses on soft skills, helps students learn about collaboration and teamwork using index cards and paper clips.
“First, the volunteer goes over the elements of a high-performing team,” Lanzl says. “Then the students are given 25 notecards and 25 paperclips and asked to build the tallest free-standing structure they can in 15 minutes.”
Afterward, the volunteer discusses the project with each group. “If we were just measuring by results—who made the tallest structure—the lesson wouldn’t be worth anything,” Lanzl says. “But the discussion that goes on is ‘Why were you successful in building this?’ Instead of telling them how to be a collaborative team, you let them do it, and they learn from the experience.”
JA of Upstate South Carolina has been bringing these volunteer-delivered programs into Greenville County schools for years, but in 2015, Lanzl and her team decided it was time to expand their engagement. “Up until that point, we’d had a bit of a scattershot approach to our objectives,” Lanzl says. “It was somewhat reactive. We knew it would be a lot more impactful if an entire second grade, or an entire fifth grade, or better yet, an entire school, received our programs.”
She adds, “At the very least, we wanted to do several grades, so the lessons are reiterated and expanded upon as the children grow.”
So, in 2015, Lanzl and her team approached the Greenville County School District with an ambitious plan: to reach as many young people in the district’s public schools as possible.
The pitch was successful, and the district decided that they wanted the JA curriculum in every middle school throughout the entire district.
“This was a game-changer for us,” Lanzl says. “This meant that we’d be focusing less on elementary schools and much more on middle schools, which is arguably a critical time for children to understand their potential, start having aspirations, and start working toward some goals.” Now, every middle school student in Greenville County is receiving JA programming.
But Lanzl isn’t stopping at middle school. “With a nonprofit, you understand that if you’ve got a good mission, and a good vision, you are never, ever finished,” she says. “At some point, we want to be able to say that every child who graduates in South Carolina—because JA is all over the state—has classes in work readiness skills that make them a qualified member of the workforce pipeline and a personal finance course so they’re ready to manage their own finances. That would be a great success.”