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.