Magazine | May 29, 2017, Issue

Owning Their Future

The joy of DECA

Anaheim, Calif. — Sixteen thousand high-school students have converged on Anaheim, but not to go to Disneyland. Well, they will do that, too, most of them. Mainly, they are here to participate in a giant career-development conference. The theme of this conference is “Own Your Future.” The participants, the high-schoolers, are walking around in blue blazers, with a patch that says “DECA.”

What does “DECA” stand for? “It stands for truth, justice, and the American way,” says John Fistolera, an official with DECA. This is a good quip. “We’re about free enterprise,” says Fistolera, “and free enterprise is the American way.”

For decades, DECA has been known as “DECA,” plain and simple. (The word is pronounced “Decka.”) But, once upon a time, the letters stood for “Distributive Education Clubs of America.” The term “distributive education” is now antique — even more antique than “voc-ed” (for “vocational education”). The preferred term now is “career education,” or “career and technical education.” I myself had never heard the term “distributive education” until a few years ago, when I was interviewing Harold Hamm.

He is the 13th and last child of cotton sharecroppers in Oklahoma — and the leading oilman in the United States. When he was in high school, in the early 1960s, he took part in a D.E. program. It meant that you got school credit for working. And the classes you took probably related to the work you were doing. Young Hamm was working at a truck stop. And he wrote a paper on oil exploration.

His D.E. teacher was a man named Jewell Ridge. The teacher meant a lot to Hamm, and to many other students, most of them poor. When Ridge died, Hamm delivered a eulogy at his funeral. Recounting all this to me, Hamm got tears in his eyes.

DECA was founded in 1946, when going to college was not de rigueur. Young people needed skills for the work world. They still do, of course. But college is a box that increasingly must be checked. Most DECA students are college-bound. Nonetheless, the organization still serves kids who aren’t.

Here in Anaheim, I meet a young man who is going straight to the Air Force. Another one is joining the family business, to learn the ropes.

DECA has 200,000 members — student members — in 3,500 high schools. There is also a college division, though smaller (15,000 members in 275 colleges and universities). The fundamentals of business are taught in the classroom, and they are buttressed by encounters with real businessmen — practitioners. DECA is a kind of partnership between schools and the business world.

I particularly like a phrase from DECA literature: DECA aids in “preparing well-adjusted, employable citizens.”

In addition to studies, internships, and the like, there is competition — the thrill of competition. DECA stages competitions on the local, regional, state, and national levels. These competitions test a variety of business skills. The conference here in Anaheim is the big enchilada, the Super Bowl, the national finals.

Did I say “national”? They want you to say “international.” Actually, I should have said “Olympics,” rather than “Super Bowl.” There are students here from all 50 states plus a handful of countries: Spain, South Korea, China, and Canada. The Canadians are very competitive when it comes to DECA. Canadians? Mild-mannered, polite, self-effacing Canadians? Yes. Think hockey.

For many students, wherever they’re from, DECA provides an opportunity to scratch a competitive itch. A lot of DECA kids are devotees of Shark Tank, a reality-TV show. On this show, entrepreneurs, or would-be entrepreneurs, pitch a business plan to a panel of seasoned, savvy investors — the “sharks.” One young man in Anaheim says, “I may not be good at sports — but I’m good at DECA.” He is a “decathlete,” in a pun you hear.

When competing, the students must wear their blazers — their blue DECA blazers. Why? This blazer is an equalizer. Rich kids, poor kids: They all look the same, essentially. No one need worry about the vexing question of dress.

DECA students, those 200,000, mirror the general high-school population: in the male–female ratio, for instance. But they differ in one respect: They tend to come from poorer families. They may have an unfortunate cycle to break out of. They may be hungry to get ahead and prove themselves.

There is a young woman here who has never been out of her hometown (in Pennsylvania). Neither have members of her family. She is here thanks to a scholarship from AT&T. Her world has been vastly widened.

Among the 16,000 in Anaheim, there is a great diversity. They come from every corner and in many flavors. I meet Italian-American kids from New Jersey — right out of Central Casting. Mexican-American kids from Albuquerque. Black kids from the Deep South, and Rust Belt cities.

There are many, many South Asian kids — the sons and daughters of immigrants from India. No doubt the fathers of many of them are motel owners, pharmacists, and engineers. No doubt these kids have been instilled with the values of hard work, entrepreneurship, and upward mobility.

One of the things students in Anaheim do is run for office: the various offices of the wide DECA network. On an exhibition floor, there is a booth promoting the candidacy of one Vishwesh Ravva. He lives in Memphis and is running for vice president of DECA’s southern region. Campaign slogan: “Wish for Vish.”

When I look at these kids in their blue blazers — planning for the future, thinking about their place in the economy, dreaming of what they can contribute — I think they are as American as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer ever were.

Speaking of planning for the future: The conference includes a kind of life-skills program called “Aspire.” Students hear about paying for college. They hear about careers — fields of endeavor, fields of employment. They write a “personal mission statement.” They learn about budgeting, credit-card debt, etc. Essentials.

Also, they have a great opportunity to “network”: meeting their fellow DECA-ites from all over the country (and beyond). These contacts may come in handy. Furthermore, they have a chance to meet with “executive mentors,” men and women who have made their way in business and in life, and have something to impart to others.

One of these mentors is Allan Bell, of Atlanta. He grew up in Detroit — hard, hard Detroit — the youngest of 16 children. His mother died when he was ten. When he was twelve, he knew that he wanted to be an accountant. Yes, an accountant. And he is a CPA today.

He is also starting a DECA-esque organization, dedicated to teaching young people about entrepreneurship. I say to him, maybe too snarkily, “We can’t all be social workers.” He responds, “Nor should we.”

Meeting with their mentors, the students ask such questions as “What did college mean to you?” “How would you do it differently?” “What was your first job?” “What did you learn from it?” “How did you get to where you are?” And there is a hardy perennial: “What advice would you give your younger self?” An interesting, maybe awkward question.

On the exhibition floor, there are booths representing many business schools and institutes — including a hotel school in Lausanne. There are also booths representing businesses, such as Sparkling Ice, a beverage line. (“Never Too Busy to Get Fizzy.”) Businesspeople meet potential future employees. The students meet potential future employers. It’s win-win, in that capitalist way.

Elsewhere on the floor, students are engaged in madly intense video games. What I have called “games” are VBCs, or “Virtual Business Challenges.” These challenges are divided into several categories, including hotels, restaurants, retailing, and sports management. Consider the restaurant challenge: Students have to figure out menu pricing, purchasing, staffing, a dining layout, a kitchen layout, and so on. What’s more, they have to do it under the gun — on the clock — competing against others. They are zealously focused.

Later on, thousands of DECA kids will sit in front of hundreds of judges, participating in an array of competitions. There is an introductory level, which involves role-playing: How do you train a new employee? How do you deal with an angry customer? And at the top level, you submit a 30-page business prospectus. You are really in the shark tank.

Some of these kids have businesses already. Horse-grooming, for example. I hear about a kid from last year who started a business online. He sells vintage and limited-edition sneakers. And he has made a lot of money. This is an advance beyond the old lemonade stand (though kids still create and man those).

The judges come from various sectors of the business world. They may be with well-known companies, such as Marriott and Otis Spunkmeyer (a nice cookie). They may be dot-com whizzes. Or franchisees. Or bankers. Or even officials of the Small Business Administration. Many are DECA alumni.

There is a family feeling about DECA — “a culture,” as someone says. DECA people, young and old, like to wear DECA paraphernalia (quite apart from the blue blazer). They like the identity, the brand. And one DECA generation helps the next.

I meet two students from Dallas who have just been through a round of competition. They were charged with outlining plans for a fall festival — a fall music festival. Forty performers on three stages, offering all genres of music. And the students had 30 minutes to prepare their plans. How did they do? They’re not sure about the judge, but they themselves feel pretty good about it.

And you can feel pretty good about America, as you survey this conference. “What a great organization,” I hear a woman sigh to her husband. All of us oldsters are suckers for kids in blue blazers. Not all of them are angels, let’s not kid ourselves. But when you peek in on DECA, you truly think that, for all its problems, America will steam on.

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