Break Out the Business Suit

During the first week of January 2007, some 4,400 New Jersey high school students descended on the campus of Mercer County Community College in West Windsor for the Future Business Leaders of America New Jersey chapter's regional competitive events. Students from all corners of the state took paper-and-pencil exams to assess their knowledge in all areas of business, from entrepreneurship and management to marketing and cybersecurity. "When you see 4,400 students on a college campus dressed in business suits, it does make an impression," says Ellen Benowitz, state chair of the New Jersey Future Business Leaders of America and a business professor at Mercer County Community College.

Since taking the top post in the FBLA's state chapter 13 years ago, Benowitz has seen the leadership organization grow to 8,200 members statewide representing 160 high schools. Students, teachers and administrators are recognizing that kids need something more than the classroom to prepare for the real world and for college. "When you talk to business people, they very often tell you that students coming out of high school have the academic skills, but they don't have the soft skills," says Benowtiz. "Through the FBLA, students have the opportunity to learn leadership skills and demonstrate them. This gives them the edge because they have something more than the academic competency. They have learned how to influence people, to organize meetings, control a crowd, develop followers and eat, dress and interview properly."

Based on the results of January's regional competitive events, the top eight students in each of New Jersey's four regions will go on to compete at the FBLA's State Leadership Conference on March 13 and 14 at the Raritan Exhibit Center. This not only includes tests, but also case-study presentations, public speaking, impromptu speaking and business ethics, among other events. "It's a very exciting kind of situation where you've got 2,000 young people all listening to a speaker," notes Benowitz. "They're all dressed to the nines in business attire, and then to be able to see them sitting down to a meal together. It's great."