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March 07, 2013 | Tom Ballard

Chip Reed has found his life’s calling, and it’s JA

Chip Reed has found his calling, and it’s hard to believe there is anyone more passionate about Junior Achievement (JA) than the fast talking, pumped-up evangelist for the organization that was founded in 1919 and established its local presence in 1969.

The Nashville native was involved for a decade in two other JA chapters, initially in his hometown and then Raleigh, before moving to the region in 2011 as President of the East Tennessee Chapter.

Today, the Middle Tennessee State University graduate and former Rides Manager at the old Opryland Park is helping young people understand how business works and what it is like to do things such as start their own firm.

In a recent interview with, Reed said, “JA is all about inspiring young people to control their own destiny.” The JA portfolio has several programs targeted at young people, depending on their school age group, and three pillars – workforce readiness, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking.

“I’m a walking example of a person who wished he had JA growing-up,” Reed says flatly. What gives him particular satisfaction is the reality that “I’m selling an idea every day, not a product.” The idea is “understanding how business and economics play out” in our lives.

Reed sees JA as providing an important bridge between academics and the real world. After their JA experience, he hopes the students that participate in its activities come away being able to say, “Now I get it,” as to how the economy works.

The more than one-hour interview involved a walking tour and discussion of JA’s trademark BizTown program and facility at the group’s Clinton headquarters that is less than a mile from Interstate 75. The East Tennessee BizTown is a simulated community with 17 stores. Tennessee has three BizTown facilities in Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville. The size varies by JA region, depending on the space available in the building and the level of corporate support for each business.

We saw familiar local names that sponsored stores in the Clinton facility – Pilot Flying J (a convenience store) and Clayton Bank (naturally, a bank) – as well as lesser known names like Ron Meredith’s Merle radio station (BizTown’s radio station). Reed noted that several storefronts are available for sponsorship.

“Stores have to make sense,” Reed said, explaining this means “there is a business model that kids can learn from and that makes sense in our city.”

BizTown, which Reed describes as a “mini-city learning lab,” is geared to fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. Before participating in the one-day experience, the students receive extensive preparation from their teachers to understand how business communities work, and they even interview for jobs in the various stores. Once hired, they join with their fellow employees to develop a business plan for the store where they will work.

Reed says the actual BizTown day lasts about 4.5 hours with each store borrowing capital from the bank, operating its business, and selling goods or services. The students get two paychecks during the period, so they can act as consumers. One of the most popular destinations is the café, particularly at lunchtime.

“Every store has a shot at being competitive,” Reed said. “It’s amazing to watch a fifth grader run his or her hands through their hair, worrying about paying off the loan.” To turn a profit, students have to consider inventory, price, advertising and even coupons,

“If they just understand the basics of how business and the economy work, they’re going to be much better off,” Reed explains.

The typical BizTown day supports 110 to 120 students. During the 2011-2012 school year, JA East Tennessee offered 40 dates attended by 4,200 students from the 17 counties that it serves. Reed expects more than 50 dates this year and more than 5,500 participants.

While BizTown is a well-known part of the JA portfolio, it is not the only component. In fact, Reed says the in-school programs taught by JA volunteers impacted 11,000 K-12 students last year. “It is a finite, structured curriculum,” he says, emphasizing the importance of volunteers in the JA service delivery strategy.

Another key component of the JA offerings is a job shadowing program that involved about 1,000 high school and middle school students last year.

“America is always filled with opportunity for those who pursue it,” says the unabashed advocate for the free market system. “It’s all about the entrepreneurial spirit, competition, self-determination, and hard work.”

Reed says he and his team are only able to serve about 10 percent of the students in its 17 counties, but one can visualize a time when JA East Tennessee will rival chapters at the top of national rankings as Reed passionately and successfully pursues the very spirit that JA is advocating in its various programs.

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