Lessons in personal achievement for students, professionals

Cargill employee “demonstrates the possibilities” for eighth-graders in Junior Achievement

By Amanda Halbersma March 22, 2016

Imagine waiting for an elevator, and when it opens, the CEO is there – giving you a prime opportunity to make a good impression.

Now imagine you’re in eighth grade.

In February, Cargill employee Justice Sikakane went to Best Academy in North Minneapolis, Minn., and asked 27 eighth grade students to act out this scenario. They took turns in the front of the classroom, with another peer acting as the CEO, and gave an “elevator pitch.” Through the feedback from Sikakane and their peers, students learned about demonstrating self-confidence, articulating their personal brand, and giving a proper handshake.

“Mr. Sikakane’s advice operated in the physical. It was all about what you need to do to function in a physical reality,” said student Michael Underwood. “We learned how to present ourselves in a corporate society, which is absolutely helpful.”

The crash course in corporate etiquette that Sikakane delivered hit the mark for the type of learning that takes place as part of the Junior Achievement program. Junior Achievement offers opportunities for professionals to interact with kindergarten through 12th grade students, and set them up to succeed in a global economy.

Junior Achievement has been one of the more popular ways for Cargill employees to engage with communities; the partnership goes back more than 65 years. The Minneapolis-based Cargill Foundation has also partnered with Best Academy and all the schools in the Harvest Network since the 1990s.

“It was a great opportunity to get kids to believe in their boundless potential,” Sikakane said.

The enthusiasm Sikakane felt for the connections he made is common among the program’s volunteers. "The volunteers who support Junior Achievement are like superheroes – they help students understand that they can be whatever they want to be," said Amanda Hillmann, senior urban program manager for Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest. "They provide an unforgettable experience for our students by empowering them to rise above the barriers that may exist in their everyday life and celebrating their integrity and creativity."

Sikakane got the attention of the all-male eighth-grade class by introducing himself and opening up about his own experiences. He started off his education in an inner city setting, facing challenges similar to what some of the Harvest Network students face in North Minneapolis.

“I feel that I am able to relate at some level with the experiences these young men face,” said Sikakane. “I know what it’s like when you’re young and trying to figure out what to do with your life. If I can demonstrate the possibilities, I believe that connection is beneficial for students of all ages.”

Making your experience relatable for kids is key to the success of Junior Achievement volunteers from any background, said Dan Platta, a Cargill business development analyst who helps coordinate Cargill’s involvement with Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest.

“There’s a lot of different Cargill employees, with a lot of different experiences. Junior Achievement does a great job of helping kids connect with all types of people, with all different styles,” Platta said. “I’ve seen many different people ultimately have an impact.”

That feeling of connection and the ability to have an impact has led to the popularity of the program at Cargill: Platta said participation in Minneapolis programs has quadrupled in the past five years. He estimates that more than 200 Cargill employees in the Minneapolis metro-area will volunteer with Junior Achievement this year, whether they are conducting classroom visits, volunteering at JA’s kid-sized city called BizTown, or helping facilitate educational contests.

“It’s all about getting kids to take something away from the experience at the end of the day,” Platta said.

Sikakane first heard about the program through a colleague, and has been participating in classroom events for three years. He said he has been working on his style and format in the hopes of delivering a great experience. He was thrilled to hear the good feedback he got from students, and people like Hillmann.

“These are the reasons employees don’t leave. When a company provides you with the opportunity to give back to the areas you care about, you feel a sense of achievement,” Sikakane said. “So, kudos to Cargill and the other companies that do this.”