Last month, I attended the JA Worldwide/JA Africa Company of the Year competition in Accra, Ghana. Seventeen teams ranging in age from fifteen to nineteen—many of whom have never been out of their respective countries—competed in this event co-sponsored by Barclays and FedEx. During this event, the teen-run companies participated in a trade fair where they promoted and sold their products and pitched their companies to a panel of judges comprised of business leaders.
What the annual JA Company of the Year Program is all about
The competition is JA Worldwide’s annual celebration of the achievements made by students who have participated in the JA Company Program across the Africa region in the previous year.
At this event, students present the results of the enterprise experience they gained while attending the Company Program, where they learned the skills to start and run their own businesses. The student companies appear before a panel of independent judges who determine company performance against the competition criteria.
The JA Company of the Year competition is not simply a business competition for young people. The goal is to balance the business achievements of each team as a whole with students’ personal development. Therefore, it is not enough to simply run a financially successful company, or to have created an exciting product or service. Competitors must also demonstrate that they understand how and why their company performed as it did.
Judges look for evidence of innovation and the application of new ideas in all aspects of running the company, as well as an understanding that continuous improvement through innovation is essential to the success of a business.
A need to harness passion to implement broader change
One of the most inspiring moments from the competition came from Zainab Abdallah, a seventeen-year-old young woman from Tanzania. During the roundtable discussion on leveraging social enterprise to enable marginalized youth in Africa, Zainab asked if she could deliver a poem to the audience.
At the end of the session, about 250 people listened as Zainab gave us a compelling view of the world of marginalized kids living on the streets and in the villages. Without notes in front of her, this talented young woman touched our hearts and opened our minds to the social challenges facing young teens who often cannot see a way forward.
I came away from the roundtable discussion with the overwhelming feeling that we have to harness this kind of passion and talent to ensure that the next generation of young Africans has a fighting chance at further developing the continent.
So why was this event so poignant? Most of the students who were there would tell you that they now want more. They are hungry to learn more about how to succeed as an entrepreneur and better contribute to their families and communities. They see what is possible—they are learning from their peers and from the adults who volunteer time to open the doors and give them a chance to explore what they are capable of.