The accusations demanded swift action.
Alevtina Sideleva and Orisa Coombs faced a sudden barrage of critiques leveled squarely at their nutritional supplements company. The entire operation was a pyramid scheme, detractors said, and the Sideleva and Coombs needed to react quickly to prove them wrong. In order to calm the concerns of employees, investors and critics alike, the team worked to reorganize the company top to bottom. They took immediate action, restructuring the operation to prove that it was a legitimate and ethical business.
Sideleva and Coombs, both seniors at Smoky Hill High School, have yet to receive their diplomas, but they've already faced the kind of professional pressure that most business executives dread. The pyramid scheme scenario was one of the in-depth tests the pair faced at the 2016 International Career Development Conference in Nashville, a competition that drew on the students' critical thinking skills, as well as the business and public relations acumen they'd built up during their time in the Smoky Hill DECA chapter.
"DECA has really helped me. We're under pressure and everything is in the moment," said Sideleva, who finished with Coombs as the National Runner-Up in Business Law and Ethics Team Decision-Making at the competition. Now a senior, Sideleva has already submitted her application to Yale University. "You can think on your feet for potential employers."
"The experience has helped me with being more professional and building my people skills. I'm definitely less shy," said Smoky Hill Senior Gillian Russo, who plans on pursuing business in college. "It's really impacted how I act and how I carry myself. I'm a lot different from when I started."
Building that brand of applicable, real-world know-how is at the heart of Smoky Hill DECA, short for Distributive Education Clubs of America. It's a mission that's become even more pressing since BJ Kingsbaker took over as the school's DECA advisor three years ago. Kingsbaker, who also serves as the school's assistant athletic director and head softball coach, has brought his sports background to bear in his role, encouraging his students to compete in state and national contests and give the club a new kind of visibility.
"I'm a coach at heart. I've been baseball coach for 18 years, a softball coach for seven years. I think I just took that competitive mindset and brought it into the classroom," Kingsbaker said. "I use a lot of the same tactics. There's a huge difference between 'good enough' and having to compete against other people for jobs or internships or scholarships. Good enough to get the grade isn't always good enough to get the job. We have to look at business through the lens of being the best."
So far, the attitude has paid off in measurable and concrete ways. For the third year in a row, the Smoky Hill DECA club broke school records for the number of state qualifiers and state champions, becoming a business powerhouse in the district and beyond. This push has come along with an active participation in the Cherry Creek School District's Professional Internship Program – Smoky Hill students have interned at high-profile companies like Under Armour, and taken part in advertising campaigns with the city of Aurora.
The club has also focused on creating professional opportunities for students, reinvigorating the school store, building a sports marketing team and pursuing more than $20,000 in CTE/Perkins funds that have gone towards state-of-the-art technology. What's more, the DECA club recently worked to raise more than $100,000 for the Make a Wish Foundation.
All of this has helped offer students a bridge between the theory of the classroom and the real-world demands of the professional world.
"I've gained skills as a leader," said Logan Banks, an 18-year-old senior and DECA president. Since joining the organization as a sophomore, Banks has helped reinvent the school store, worked on organizing large-scale school events and fundraising pushes and successfully competed on a state and national level with partner and classmate Ahmed Ferjani. "I feel like (Kingsbaker) and I have worked hand-in-hand in the past three years, and in the process I've learned how to work hard and get things done."
Gillian Russo, an 18-year-old senior and a member of the DECA Sports Marketing Team, sees similar gains from her years in the organization. In addition to building a professional resume and gaining a sense of future career goals, Rose has established important interpersonal skills, as well as self-confidence, during her time with the club.
"The experience has helped me with being more professional and building my people skills. I'm definitely less shy," said Russo, who plans on pursuing business in college. "It's really impacted how I act and how I carry myself. I'm a lot different from when I started."
Kingsbaker said that those kind of results are common for DECA members. Smoky Hill High School DECA members are competing with students from schools across the country; they're winning internships in international companies and taking home trophies in contests against top-ranked competitors. Students are taking these skills to the next phases in their lives, applying for business and marketing tracks at prestigious universities across the country. Most importantly, the Smoky Hill DECA students have found an important degree of pride and direction in their accomplishments, a sense of purpose that's infectious.
"Historically speaking, our students have been the ones who have lost out on some of these opportunities," Kingsbaker said. "Now, in those same scenarios – job interviews where they have to be academically strong and professional – we're excelling."