Junior Achievement teaches business concepts in a model town for schoolkids.

Mike Davis explains Junior Achievement of Central Ohio's focus on elementary students by comparing the nonprofit's work to that of coaches and athletes.

Good coaches start identifying—and even recruiting—players long before they complete their rosters. It's a model corporate leaders also should embrace, says the president of the organization dedicated to empowering young people to own their economic success.

Introducing children to business concepts, job possibilities and good financial habits should start early, he says.

Junior Achievement used to work only with high school students, but the organization has expanded to expose younger students to these foundational concepts.

“We want to build these skills over time,” Davis says. “We want to be more deeply engaged with school districts in the region.”

The number of students served by the central Ohio chapter jumped from 13,196 during the 2010-11 school year to 21,808 last year.

For many students, that engagement begins with JA BizTown, a student-run simulated city in a former Columbus elementary school where youngsters put classroom learning into action. Columbus is one of 30 cities in the United States to offer children the BizTown experience. They run everything from city hall and a radio station to a utility company and a pharmacy. All of the businesses are sponsored by local companies.

The program, geared to students in 4th through 6th grades, begins in the classroom. Students spend four weeks studying economics, citizenship and financial management. They learn about the companies at JA BizTown and what jobs are available there. They interview for positions and then create and run businesses.

The town's operations rely heavily on volunteers—often parents or representatives of partner companies—who help students breathe life into the community.

Throughout the day, kids take out business loans, pay taxes, seek permits, issue paychecks and tackle other tasks. When business leaders have the chance to see the town in action, it resonates with them, Davis says. “Everyone who comes here sees how this makes perfect sense.”

It's a great learning experience for kids because many of the jobs and companies are new to them, Davis adds. The purpose of BizTown is to begin a conversation that goes beyond, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“At JA, we ask kids early: ‘What are your interests? What are your skills? What do you value?'” he says. “Then we help them build the skill sets and connect the dots between those things.”

BizTown's ability to introduce children to the world of work and various business models made it appealing to Thirty-One Gifts, says Wendy Bradshaw, executive director of community affairs and philanthropy for the Columbus-based company that sells purses and totes.

The company has a branded store in BizTown where it introduces children to the direct-sales concept and some of its jobs. The hands-on opportunities are beneficial, she says.

“They're experiencing and learning things that will last a lifetime,” Bradshaw adds.

The Blue Jackets Foundation also supports Junior Achievement and BizTown, says Kathryn Dobbs, the Columbus Blue Jackets' vice president of community relations and executive director of the foundation.

“The Blue Jackets store within JABizTown offers a terrific vehicle to demonstrate to students that there are many interesting ways to work in hockey beyond playing the game,” she says.

Davis and his team have been building partnerships to bring BizTown to more children. They have created a business model they can scale to serve more children as their budget increases, he says. Growth is tied more to its ability to engage businesses and individuals than the ebb and flow of the local economy.

“From our point of view, it basically comes down to do you have a powerful value proposition to offer that will engage leaders and individuals to support you.”

Melissa Kossler Dutton is afreelance writer.