They are an unlikely band of evangelists for the free enterprise system, a group of mostly Hispanic college students whose resumes almost inevitably include the phrase "first in (his or her) family to attend college."
Yet the students who participate in the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) program at Heritage University in Toppenish, and close the year competing against college teams from across the country, prove themselves not only believers in, but practitioners of, free enterprise.
Year after year, the students from Heritage distinguish themselves as among the top student teams at the regional and national SIFE competition, including this year in Kansas City when they finished fourth runner-up in the semi-final round of the national competition among 160 schools who participated.
"To see the transformation of these kids when they get a chance to believe in themselves is amazing," says Leonard Black, who created and has run the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) program at Heritage for almost a dozen years. "They go from shy, insecure and self-conscious to very outgoing and confident."
"These are kids from farmworker or immigrant backgrounds," notes Black. "Their dinner-table conversations at home focus on survival skills and paying bills." In fact, 97 percent of Heritage's 1,500 students qualify for some sort of federal or state financial aide, including most of the 55 percent of the students who already have children.
They not only believe in the message conveyed in the projects in which SIFE involves them, but they become teachers of free enterprise among entrepreneurial hopefuls in the Hispanic-dominated Yakima Valley.
Black spent his career as a corporate executive, finally as Duracell vice president of operations for Asia-Pacific before becoming a volunteer chair of the business program at Heritage.
Black recalls that it was Sr. Kathleen Ross, the Holy Names nun from Spokane who helped found Heritage College in 1981 as an independent college and served as president for 30 years until her retirement in 2010, who first suggested he take a look at SIFE. She apparently felt the program fitted in with her focus on providing higher-education opportunity to the area's multicultural population.
SIFE is an international non-profit organization that works with leaders in business and higher education to teach students, through outreach projects in which they apply business concepts learned in the classroom, the skills to be socially responsible business leaders.
An annual series of regional and national competitions provides a forum for teams to present the results of their projects, and be evaluated by business leaders serving as judges.
It was those annual competitions to which Black aimed the attentions of the SIFE students at Heritage, even though he recalls that the first year in the regional competition "we were told that we were the worst team they'd ever seen."
Undeterred by that first SIFE experience, the students met with him and said: "Mr. Black, we're coming back next year and we're going to win."
"So they went out and rounded up other students and came up with additional projects," Black said. "The following year they were regional first runner-up, but they were still disappointed with that showing. So the third year, they won the regionals and went on to the national competition in Kansas City."
Heritage officials point to the team's ability to find a flow of new members as indicating that "while SIFE is an exceptional showcase for our students-and attracts many of the best students-they are by no means unique."
Two years after that first national-competition showing, they became the first team from the Seattle region to ever make it into the national semi-final competition, Black said. That meant they would have to be on stage before an audience of more than 3,000, including the 130 business executives who were judges.
"They had never spoken into microphones, so they used soda cans to simulate microphones," Black noted. "They finished second in the nation."
Now it's routinely assumed that the Heritage kids will be in the forefront at the competition. In 11 years and 18 competitions, the Heritage teams have nine regional championships, seven national semi-final appearances, "final four" three times and recognition in 2011 as one of the nation's 10 top programs. And in May Black was inducted into the SIFE Hall of Fame.
As to their real-time involvements, Black said "We work with people in the community to help them realize their dreams" with the students touting the benefits of a free-market economy to the entrepreneur hopefuls..
Toppenish has a population of just under 9,000 residents, 82 percent of whom are Hispanic and 32 percent of whom live below the poverty line. It's to that population that the students bring hope, particularly since 51 percent of Heritage students are Hispanic and 85 percent are the first in their families to attend college.
The students recently did a survey of 4,000 households in the area and found that 180 residents want to start a business, but lack the resources to do so. So the students are putting together a training program and hope to pursue grants that will permit them to start a mini-loan fund for those entrepreneurial hopefuls.
Several years ago they helped Hispanic farmers form a cooperative to sell apples, including writing a business plan so the farmers could qualify for small-business loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They got a $325,000 loan, with training from the students written into the loan application, and the result is the cooperative called Washington Elite Growers.
Heritage alum Gary Pierce Jr., a native-American member of the Yakama Nation, turned down several Fortune 500 offers after he graduated in 2006 with a degree in business administration because he felt it was more important to remain in the community where he grew up.
Today he heads up marketing for Yakama Nation Land Enterprises (YNLE), a company charged with rebuilding the Yakama Nation landscape. The company purchases lost tribal lands and develops ways to make a profit from them so that more property can eventually be purchased.
When Gaylene Anderson decided on an entrepreneurial coming-out party from her tech-transfer role at the University of Idaho, she chose the biggest business-plan competition stage in the country and picked the quintessential symbol of Idaho to tout her fledgling company.
The result was a storybook debut in which she wowed the audience and the judges and is now gaining national attention for herself and Solanux Inc., whose academia-developed process turns the potato into a health food.
The next chapter in Anderson's emergence from the relative obscurity of her university technology transfer role of the last 10 years to a once-in-a-lifetime experience as triple honoree at the Rice University Business Plan Competition will be inclusion in a special section in Fortune magazine's May issue.
In the space of three days last month, she won the Rice competition's 60-second elevator pitch, was honored by a national women's entrepreneur organization, and her team took fifth in the competition.
"The 42 finalists from among 1,600 business-plan applicants included schools like MIT, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Purdue...and Idaho," she said with a smile. "When we said we were from Idaho, people kind of chuckled. I think they thought of us as cute, but not likely to be competitive, but the opinions changed after our first presentation."
By the time the competition ended two days later, the Idaho team had won $25,000, which included $1,000 for Anderson's winning 60-second pitch, $4,000 for the team's fifth-place finish and $20,000 for the Courageous Women Entrepreneur Award.
That award came from a national women's investment group called nCourage, which Anderson says has now offered to help raise the rest of the money for the Solanux start-up.
In addition, she has been advised by the Texas Angel network that they want her to present to one of their groups in July
Most of the initial funding of about $1.5 million has come from J.R. Simplot, the Boise-based potato-products giant. And while the goal of the initial fund-raising effort has been $2.5 million, she confides that the target is now likely to double.
"We'll likely be looking now to raise $5 million because Simplot wants to expand the pilot testing phase and we want to produce a potato chip with this process, go after our own product," she said.
Her first visibility following the Rice event was in early April on CNN Money's website, where the 60-second elevator pitches by Anderson and others were featured (and which you can see on YouTube, as she talks holding up the potato, which she says she "carried everywhere" in Houston).
It hadn't been Anderson's intent to steal the show, but rather to use the competition to take a key step toward attracting investor attention for Solanux, which uses enzymes and chemicals to turn dehydrated potatoes into a healthy food product rather than starch.
"Enzymes and chemicals are used to stabilize the cell walls around potato starch, which slows digesting of the starch and increases the fiber in potatoes," Anderson said in explaining the process. "The process is used when raw potatoes are being converted to dehydrated potato flakes, granules or flour and the dried ingredients have increased health benefits, like lowering glycemic response, aiding with weight reduction and acting like a natural probiotic."
"These products will benefit diabetics, people that have allergies to corn or wheat starch products (Solanux products will be gluten free), and people that simply want more healthy (and more variety) potato products," she added.
When the product was brought to Anderson's attention in the university's tech-transfer office, she put a team together that named the product ("Solanum is Latin for potato, but I figured if we substituted an 'x' for the 'm,' it would sound techie," she explained in an interview) and has been guiding its progress.
The process was perfected by U of I food scientist Kerry Huber, who is part of the Solanux team, as is Jacob Pierson, a third-year law student with a master's in bioinformatics, whom she credits with much of the success at the Rice competition.
Anderson will be staying with the company in a key-executive capacity as future progress develops under the watchful eyes of Simplot executives. Going along with Anderson will be her husband, currently the U of I swim coach, and their teen-age sons.
It was the swimming focus of her family (her 15 and 17-year-old sons are competitive swimmers) that actually guided Anderson's first entrepreneurial venture, a learn-to-swim video called Waterproof Kids, a CD available at Wal-Mart and through Amazon. Asked if they provide her an income, she said "A little, but not enough to quit my day job."
Anderson admits that Solanux is the first tech-transfer product that ever tempted her to leave academia for the private sector. But she says when she saw U of I president N. Dwayne Nellis at an event two weekends ago and advised him of her decision to leave, he convinced her to instead take a two-year entrepreneurial leave.
In what may be the makings of a marketing pitch for products that are eventually created from the Solanux process, Anderson enthuses: "This may be our best hope for eating French fries without self-hate."
The Washington Legislature ensured that the controversy over charter schools will become a focus in the state's gubernatorial campaign by specifically rejecting charters as part of any education-reform efforts in a bill that creates a handful of what will be called "collaborative schools."
The manner in which the legislation was conceived and approved, at the request of Gov. Christine Gregoire after she specifically warned that she would veto any bill authorizing charter schools, has "controversy" written all over it.
Passed in the midst of an extended session aimed at resolving the state's budget crisis, the bill is titled "collaborative schools for innovation and success pilot program." It calls for a five-year program involving six elementary schools, each of which will be operated by pairing to-be-determined school districts with colleges of education in the state.
The bill basically does two things that, for sure, won't make proponents of dramatic change in the state's education system very happy. It requires, basically, that all parts of the current schools infrastructure -- administrators, teachers unions and what's called "the professional education standards board" - must sign off on any innovative programs conceived for the handful of schools permitted to participate. And it ensures that no wholesale changes would be possible until the five years of testing for those few schools provided for in the bill have been fulfilled and evaluated.
One of those left unhappy is Rep. Eric Pettigrew, the respected African-American Democrat whose House district includes some of Seattle's at-risk neighborhoods and who had co-sponsored a bill to permit charter schools in Washington State.
"This bill isn't even close," Pettigrew told me in a telephone interview. "We have been doing things the same way for too long and accepting a certain failure rate and I don't think that's acceptable."
"Charter schools provide the flexibility to be nimble in seeking education changes," he added. "Probably the most frustrating thing about the entire experience is that discussion of what's best for the kids never seems to really conclude before it trails off into organizations that will need to be involved."
The comment frames the reason for controversy over charter schools in this state, one of the last nine in which charters are prohibited. Whether what's best for the kids is the unquestioned number one issue inevitably collides with many teachers and teacher advocates who will insist that even if kids' needs are the priority, what's good for teachers is also an issue. The stronger the teachers union in a state, the more that conflict comes into play.
The Seattle Times, in a January editorial on the bill proposed by Pettigrew and Sen. Steve Litzow, a Republican from Mercer Island, said: "Political courage is often lacking in Olympia, making Pettigrew's willingness to buck the Democratic Party's usual fidelity to the Washington Education Association all the more striking."
"Expect contentious debate," The Times editorial continued. "In particular, the teachers union sees charter schools as a threat. Yes, Washington state voters rejected charter-school proposals three times. But we know a lot more about these innovative public schools since the last failed measure in 2004."
Indicating that his "courage" isn't likely to wane in the coming months as likely Democratic gubernatorial standard-bearer Jay Inslee picks up the education ball his party has crafted for him and runs with it, Pettigrew said "if the unions or even my fellow Democrats want to come after me, fine."
Atty. Gen. Rob McKenna, the presumptive Republican gubernatorial nominee who has promised to make education reform and funding a focal point of his campaign, says of the collaborative-schools idea "There is no evidence that they will actually work. Moreover, it will take years before we know if they do."
"I support trying new approaches to improve education for our children right now," he added. "And a smarter approach would be to adopt models that have a proven track record of success, like high-performing public charter schools that are working in 41 other states."
McKenna says both collaborative schools and charter schools should be "tools in the toolkit" for those seeking a new education model.
Inslee, in a wide-ranging blueprint for education reform to create "An innovative, accountable education system: building a better future for every child and a stronger economy for Washington," called for change in most aspects of the economy that might impact education funding.
Thus his plan for educational reform and adequate funding calls for "reinvigorating the economy..." "Reverse the trend of healthcare inflation eating into education spending..." "Sunset corporate tax loopholes that have outlived their purpose..." and "Expand a system of quality improvement to all government agencies..."
Inslee says his "vision for an education system by 2020" includes that "achievement and opportunity gaps among students are eliminated."
An ongoing challenge for Inslee and Democrats in rejecting the idea of even having charter schools on the education-reform table is that some prominent, long-time Democrat supporters appear reluctant to get aboard.
Perhaps most challenging for them is Nick Hanauer, the venture capitalist and avowed "lifelong Democrat and committed progressive," who views Republican positions on social issues and taxation as "misguided," but says "McKenna is on the right track and we are not" on school reform.
"We may be headed in the right direction, but we aren't in the right lane," Hanauer told the head of the state teachers' union in a February e-mail exchange. "It is not classroom teachers who are afraid of change and innovation, it is their union."
While charter schools are anathema to teachers' unions, they have gathered supporters from among some of those who toil in the classrooms, including Erin Gustafson, who grew up on Mercer Island but began her teaching career in one of California's poverty pockets.
"My path to supporting charters began 16 years ago when I taught fifth grade at a high-poverty school in Vallejo," Gustason told me. "I became disillusioned with the poor teaching, union rules that protected that, and the restrictions of operating in a large system."
Gustafson, now married and the mother of children 9 and 7 and a substitute teacher, became involved in a new teacher-created education-reform non-profit called Teachers United, born a year ago with the goal of "giving teachers a voice in policy debates."
She is now policy director for the group, which advocated last session for charter schools as one of the choices that need to be available in Washington State. She was among teachers from the organization who testified before the legislature's education committees on behalf of charter schools.
"After doing a lot of research and visiting several public charter schools in California, I have come to believe that successful public charters are an effective way of closing the achievement gap," she said. "We took teachers who were interested to visit high-performance charters across the country and, for those teachers, seeing was believing so they decided to advocate for charters."
Nine years on from Michael P. Anderson's death on the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia, the fund-raising effort to ensure continuation of the annual program at Seattle's Museum of Flight aimed at inspiring at-risk children of color to dream big dreams is nearing its final stage.
In fact, the effort launched for a hometown hero by Spokane business leaders following the Feb. 1, 2003, shuttle disaster, along with the major assist from African-American pilots of Alaska Airlines and a financial commitment from the airline itself represents fulfillment of a big dream in its own right.
As the Museum of Flight prepares to host the third annual Michael P. Anderson Memorial Aerospace Program on February 4, final selection is in progress for the group of 10-to-14 year olds who will receive support from a special fund to attend the day-long session.
The goal of the program has been to create an enduring memory of Anderson and to make his achievements an object of aspiration and inspiration for young people, particularly the African-American students who would seek to emulate him. It's intended to help inspire an interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and careers.
Avista Corp. CEO Scott Morris, motivated in part by the fact Anderson's father was an Avista employee, assigned the firm's director of community development, Anne Marie Axworthy, and communications manager Jessie Wuerst lead roles in the project, with a goal of raising funds for a statue of Anderson in his hometown. That was soon after the shuttle disaster. But with completion of the larger-than-life bronze statue in Spokane in 2005, the vision expanded.
That meant doing something on the west side of the state and that led to a focus on a second statue at Seattle's Museum of Flight, which was dedicated in June of 2009, as well as a program to bring African-American children an awareness of Anderson and his accomplishments. That led to the creation of the Michael Anderson Memorial Aerospace Scholarship for Children of Color, which is administered by the Museum of Flight.
The campaign to raise the final $50,000 to ensure that the Museum of Flight program and the scholarships continue will also get a boost next month when the person credited with being the key figure in making the Seattle portion of the program a reality retires from the Air Force and returns to Seattle.
Maj. Gen. Harold L. "Mitch" Mitchell, Deputy Inspector General of the Air Force in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, retires this month after two years on active duty and will resume his role as an Alaska Airlines pilot, which is what he was doing when he was first approached about involvement.
"The goal has been to do more than merely put up a statue," Mitchell explained in an e-mail exchange this week. "It's important to leverage Anderson's legacy to help students have a chance to do similar things."
In an effort to put together a group to focus on the goal, Mitchell turned to other African-American pilots at Alaska, then realized "we needed some funding to make this happen so we thought it was an idea worthy of sharing with the company."
He says they didn't expect Alaska to be as supportive as it was, but the airline agreed to put up $100,000 as matching funds over four years.
"To be honest, we've struggled on our side of the match, but they have been outstanding," Mitchell said.
Wuerst of Avista said the campaign has raised $190,000 thus far and needs to raise a final $25,000 to get the last $25,000 of the Alaska match.
Anderson was 43 when he and the other six crew members of the Colujmbia crew perished as the shuttle broke apart on re-entry.
But in an interview from space earlier in the 16-day mission, Anderson expressed a thought that became the quote on the plaque on each statue: "This is what I wanted to do since I was a little kid. If you apply yourself, work hard to be persistent, and don't give up, you can achieve anything you want to achieve."
It's that commitment that supporters of the Museum of Flight program hope to bring to a growing number of children of color from all parts of Washington State.