CEO of the Year: Small Nonprofit

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

As Mike Davis walks to his office, he overhears a conversation about personal finance. "I bounced a check," laments one person. "I knew you'd bounce a check today. You just can't control your money," says the other. It could be an exchange between two colleagues in the elevator, but in reality it's between two fifth-grade students participating in JA BizTown, one of 24 programs offered through Junior Achievement of Central Ohio. The nonprofit, of which Davis is president, teaches students financial literacy, work readiness and entrepreneurial skills.

BizTown is like a miniature city, complete with a city hall, bank, radio station and other businesses. Students must make a profit for their company. Employees earn a paycheck and open a checking account in order to buy goodies during their breaks. Interacting with the 70 to 100 students who participate each day is the most rewarding part of the job, Davis, 51, says.

"It is amazing to listen to how intelligent and perceptive young people can be when you give them a framework and knowledge and expose them to things," Davis says.

Meeting the students reminds Davis of the tough choices he faces, the biggest being when he has to say "no" to a school that wants to participate. "The most challenging part is what's left that we haven't been able to engage yet," Davis says. "We've had to be disciplined about how we plan and manage our growth. We can't do a lot of things poorly. We need to do a few things really well."

Davis joined Junior Achievement in February 2010. In the three months that followed, he and the board of directors developed a new strategic plan that has fostered growth at the organization, whose $855,000 annual budget is funded mainly by corporate, individual, foundation, BizTown and special event dollars.

JA has 10 employees and 1,700 volunteers, and reached about 13,900 students during the 2010-11 school year, up almost 29 percent from 10,800 the year before. In the city of Columbus, used as the urban model for the new plan, the number of students reached increased from 1,400 to 2,400, with 6,500 projected for this school year.

In the past, JA focused on elementary schools. The new plan calls for "a pipeline of elementary, middle and high school programs so that young people get a consistent and increasingly sophisticated understanding of money, skills and mindset," Davis says. "We're reaching far more students, but just as important to us, there is a clear progression so that we engage those students multiple times."

Having a clear vision is part of being a good CEO, whether the organization is for-profit or not, Davis says. "To me, it really is around a mindset of doing the work well, having a clear plan and making people excited about what you're doing and joining you. That's the real test."

Reprinted from the December 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.