Local students participating in the National Black MBA Association Leaders of Tomorrow business competition, from left: Kentrell Duncan, Maliya Wilson, Marran McMillen, Aariona Neal and Mikale Swain. Not pictured: Sivonne Thomas. | Courtesy of the Kentucky chapter

Two Louisville teenagers recently sat in a meeting room on the lower level of the Shawnee Branch of the public library system, staring intently at a YouTube clip. But it wasn’t the latest Bruno Mars or Khalid video. Instead, the laptop screen showed young students giving a presentation about changing consumer preferences, social media marketing and revenue goals.

If that doesn’t sound immediately riveting, the local students, Aariona Neal and Maliya Wilson, probably would have agreed not too long ago. But for months, the duo and other Louisville teenagers have studied a Harvard University MBA-level business case in preparation for a national competition in which they can win thousands of dollars for scholarships.

And while both said they entered the program with reluctance — and some pushing from parents — they have come to enjoy working with local mentors and learning about business basics such as branding, cash flow and profit margins.

“It was fun,” Neal said. “I learned a lot.”

Neal, 15, and Wilson, 16, are participating in the Leaders of Tomorrow National Business Case Competition, sponsored locally by the Kentucky chapter of the National Black MBA Association. Beyond business basics, the program also imparts on young Louisvillians the importance of soft skills such as teamwork, punctuality and dedication. Meanwhile, organizers and mentors hope that they can help steer more youth, especially those with challenging backgrounds, toward college and prepare them for careers or encourage them to start a business.

The National Black MBA Association was founded in 1970 to create more intellectual and economic wealth in the black community with the help of more than 300 corporations and universities.

“Hundreds of high school students in 30+ chapters nationwide get preparation for college and life through Leaders of Tomorrow,” the organization said. Local advisers help coach students in the areas of leadership, college and career preparation, public speaking and financial literacy, it said.

In 2016, Leaders of Tomorrow had an extensive slate of programming, activities and events, including the inaugural LeaderTech tour. Students visited the headquarters of Facebook and Google in addition to the Tech Museum in San Jose, Calif. “The tour immersed students in technology-based corporate environments to complement their exposure to business analysis, planning and execution,” the organization said.

Economics and soft skills

Maliya Wilson, 16, left, and Aariona Neal, 15, watch a video about a Harvard University MBA-level business competition. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Neal said that she did not like the after-school program in her first year, because her mom “strongly encouraged” her to go and because she did not know anyone on her team.

However, Neal said, once she got to know the other participants and learned some important lessons, including how to mitigate one’s stage fright when speaking in front of a group of people, she said she really enjoyed the program.

Neal said mentors focused not only on the business case, but also on soft skills, such as teamwork and dressing professionally, which interested her in part because of her fondness for fashion.

“I like to dress up,” said Neal, who has interned with the Louisville fashion designer Aryea Kolubah.

Neal liked Leaders of Tomorrow so much, in fact, that she returned to the program last fall, this time in a leadership role, which requires her to make sure that group members understand their tasks and know when to be where.

Wilson, 16, whom Neal recruited for the competition last fall, said that for this year’s case, the team had to conduct research on the consumer electronics company Fitbit. That included reading a dense dossier, looking at financials, completing a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis and generating a five-year strategy to improve the business.

“We had to do a lot,” Wilson said.

The teens have been meeting with mentors at least once a week since the fall. Neal said that some nights she stayed up until the early morning to read up on the company, think about strategy or prepare her presentation.

She remembers jotting down notes on flash cards and practicing her presentation in front of the mirror, adjusting hand gestures to show enthusiasm and personality while remaining professional.

Both students are between their sophomore and junior years at Male High School.

Life lessons

At that recent meeting at the library, a mentor, Eboni Edwards, supplier diversity manager at LG&E and KU, asked the students to pay close attention to the presenters in the video, especially to the slides with which they supported their case.

Humana analytics consultant Chanda Glover, another local mentor and president of the Kentucky chapter, said the students learned a lot of skills that would be valuable not just in their careers but life in general, including taking initiative and non-linear problem solving.

The mentors said they saw significant progress in the participants. Early on, the kids may have chuckled when somebody else spoke, but now they respect one another and listen. Some even get aggravated when somebody interrupts part of the presentation.

Glover said the competition also gives students a safe space to make mistakes and to learn from them so that they can avoid them in their professional lives.

The local program is supported by volunteers, and organizers said that it also needs additional funding, participants and mentors.

Alontay Maddox

Alontay Maddox, an alumnus of the Louisville program, told Insider that as an arts and entertainment-oriented youngster, the business-focused competition initially did not appeal to him.

However, once he got involved, Maddox said that learned that he could apply his creativity to business challenges, and that understanding business can help him in his career in the arts.

“I ended up loving the program,” he said.

Maddox said he especially enjoyed the SWOT analysis, working with people from different economic backgrounds and the program’s focus on improving participants’ professional skills, including how to write formal letters.

Maddox attends Clark Atlanta University, where he studies mass media arts with a concentration in radio, television and film and a minor in theater arts. He said he hopes to become a radio, television or film producer.

The teens participated in the local competition May 16 and are now preparing for the nationals in Chicago in June. Some of the students and mentors will spend a few days at Loyola University, meet local business executives, tour the campus and experience a few days of college life.

Fundraiser

Leaders of Tomorrow organizers encouraged parents, children, potential mentors and supporters to join them at a barbecue from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on June 17 at George Rogers Clark Park lodge. Meals will cost $10 a plate and raise funds for the program. The park features athletic facilities and amenities including a playground, picnic table and a horseshoe pit.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.