Emma Adams thought she knew about finances as CFO of Bakersfield High School’s prestigious virtual enterprise team. Then she met Di Wu, an associate professor of accounting at Cal State Bakersfield.
Wu, as one of more than a dozen volunteer business advisers at the Kern High School District’s Career & Technical Education Center, persuaded Adams and her classmates to reevaluate assumptions built into the profit margin of their hypothetical company. He listed considerations still to be addressed on their balance sheet.
“I didn’t know what a balance sheet was,” said Adams, a junior.
She and her team ended up placing second in a national Virtual Enterprise business plan championship early this month in New York City. Their business, called Visionary, virtually sells affordable, fashionable eyeglasses made from a compound called cellulose acetate that decomposes faster than most plastics used in eyewear.
Local high schools have consistently performed well in VE. This year, teams from three Bakersfield high schools placed top-five nationally in the most exalted competition: business planning. A team from Ridgeview High took fourth; fifth went to a Centennial High VE business — out of nearly 500 teams from across the country.
People involved say if there’s a secret sauce behind Bakersfield schools’ yearslong streak of exceptional performances in state and national competition, it’s the enthusiasm with which adults in the community have lifted up the city’s Virtual Enterprise teams.
Usually it starts with a teacher — in BHS’s case, adviser Ryker Solano, who has taken 10 teams to national finals in his 11 years of involvement with VE. But often the difference comes down to volunteers within the local business community.
Teri Jones, Western U.S. regional director for Virtual Enterprise International, said one of the factors distinguishing teams from Bakersfield is the support they receive, from district administrators and principals to teachers and local business professionals.
She recalled coming to Bakersfield and witnessing parents and community members grilling VE teams “as tough as they can be” to help the students prepare for competition.
“You come to Bakersfield and you see the community support, how involved people are, how passionate they are,” Jones said. “It’s really beautiful to see.”
She said BHS has probably placed top three more than any of the 400 schools involved nationwide. Clearly people are putting in extra time and effort.
“It kind of takes a village,” she said. “To get this high, it takes more than one person who did it.”
Among the newest recruits is Shontay Smith-Sweeney, a Bakersfield business professional with 22 years of banking experience. It’s her first year as a VE adviser at CTEC, the KHSD center, and already she’s hooked.
Smith-Sweeney saw the way other advisers were being honest with students rather than sticking with soft questions. She picked apart teams’ profit and loss statements, breakeven points and strength-weakness-opportunity-threat analyses.
It was gratifying to see later how students had incorporated her suggestions and improved their projects, made them more realistic, made her proud.
Every one of the advisers she worked with at CTEC seemed committed to giving students “the best quality advice we can,” she said, “because we’re in it for them to win it.”
Solano said apart from the time his students spend at CTEC in front of local business leaders, he lines up exclusive attention with people he knows in the local business community. Students also make presentations at local Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, he said, and teams have made visits to the Bakersfield City Council, even a courtroom performance for a local judge.
“The consistent feedback I hear is how impressive these students are,” he said, “and that really is thanks in part to a system of advisers who help and guide and mold them.”
Angel Cottrell, a business consultant and Taft College faculty member working as entrepreneurship resource centers program manager at KHSD, became involved in Virtual Enterprise in 2013. Immediately impressed, she began volunteering and became more and more involved. Earlier this year, she brought some 700 students to CTEC for an in-person virtual trade show that put students in front of marketing and financial professionals for a half-hour of advising at a time, concurrently in five conference rooms.
Outsiders can’t help but notice, Cottrell said.
“We literally have people who come to us during the event,” she said. “They always want to know, what is it about the community? It’s the support of the community. … This is a reflection of who this community is.”
CSUB’s Wu, whose advice made a strong impression on BHS’s Visionary team, said by email it was a great honor to work with students as talented those who came in for guidance at CTEC.
He recalled pushing the students to dive deeply into their research, to understand their role within the company and be prepared for any questions that might come their way.
One time he asked questions of a team’s financial expert, whose name he didn’t mention, but the responses he got were unclear. A person in such a role must be detail-oriented, he recalled saying, and able to explain all figures in a report. He handed out papers with references and guidance to be considered in preparation for competition.
“As a result,” he said, “I did see that they took my advice seriously and improved so much that later they were very successful in the final competition.”
In competition April 4-6 in New York City, a team from Centennial High placed second in the marketing and finance contests. It was joined in New York by other Bakersfield high school VE teams that placed high enough in state finals to qualify for national competition:
• Bakersfield High’s marketing and human resources departments;
• Centennial’s finance and marketing departments;
• Both of Ridgeview’s business plan teams and one of its human resources departments; and
• Stockdale High’s human resources department.