Junior Achievement Biztown: Q&A

Allison Peart, a Canadian CPA working in Jamaica, brings a novel financial literacy program to students in that island nation. Now, she thinks it might work in Canada too.

Born in Jamaica but raised in Toronto, Allison Peart made her name doing international tax work with EY in Toronto and New York. In 2002, she was asked to help with the firm’s Caribbean practice for a three-year stint; that three years became 15, and Peart is now the firm’s country manager for Jamaica. In 2014, looking to find a way to get more involved in Jamaican society and help with the country’s financial literacy issues, Peart launched the first-ever JA Biztown in Kingston—an experiential community, supported by Junior Achievement or “JA”, where kids learn financial literacy, work readiness, entrepreneurial skills, and how to run a business. Originally targeting Grade 5 students in the capital, Junior Achievement now plans to expand the program across the country. CPA Canada spoke with Peart recently from the EY office in Kingston.

How did this Junior Achievement program develop? I understand you got the idea via your local rotary club.
When I moved to Jamaica, I needed something to get to know people. I’d left so young—I’d lost touch with my high school friends. But I also wanted to give back and didn’t know how to. In a country like Jamaica, there’s a lot of need. I joined the rotary club, and eventually, they made me president—the first female president of the Rotary Club of Kingston. As president, you get a major project, and I chose Junior Achievement and their Biztown program. At the time, it was only done in the U.S. JA Biztown teaches Grade 5 kids, and they get 20 lessons on financial literacy, work readiness, what it takes to run a business. They apply for jobs in the town and then they operate in the town.

What’s the key lesson you want these kids to learn?
Delayed gratification. Because, in JA Biztown, we have all kinds of distractions. You could spend your money on a massage, on food, or you can bank it. So in terms of what I want? I find we don’t save enough—we don’t teach our children cheques are going to become obsolete, we don’t teach children how much we make, how do you budget, how do we make money, and delaying spending and instead saving more towards retirement and about helping and charity. If they get basic financial literacy, if they understand how to run a business and maintain their cash—and that cash isn’t profit—then I’m good.

You’ve since handed JA Biztown over to Junior Achievement to manage. Do you ever go back and visit?
I usually go back at least twice a year and visit the EY office. I also visit the other storefronts including the JPS store (Jamaica Public Service), which is our utility company because invariably the children operating the storefront don’t pay all their bills on time and they understand the consequences. I remember one time they didn’t pay the phone company and the phone company’s CFO came out and took out all the phones. I thought this was hilarious and a great life lesson. The phone company’s CFO came with security guards from the security company and took out the phones and said, “When you pay me, you get these back.” When I visit and greet the kids operating the EY office at JA Biztown, they always have queries about operating the real EY office. It’s a great way to teach our kids about real life.

Obviously you get some pretty engaged kids going through JA Biztown, but how do you know you’ve succeeded? What is the desired outcome after a day of a program like that?
It’s a long-term thing. Junior Achievement does studies; they track the kids. So what we’ve seen in the U.S., is that wherever there’s a JA Biztown, the entrepreneurship activity after graduation from high school is high. You really start to see the impact when they graduate from high school or university and start to work.

Is there anything from the JA Biztown experience in Jamaica that could be instructive for Canada?
Absolutely. I think Canada needs a JA Biztown in each city. I understand that we were the first in the world outside of the U.S., back in 2014, but when I was doing my research, Vancouver had a Finance Park, which is Junior Achievement’s high-school version of JA Biztown. I think exposure to JA Biztown would do wonders to improve the financial literacy of our Canadian children. Particularly for kids that are new immigrants, kids that don’t quite understand how the economy works, how businesses work—you don’t have to have a great grasp of English for JA Biztown to do well. For the diverse cultural experience that we have in Canada, this would be something that would help all our children regardless of their background—I mean, if CPA Canada could partner and get our Canadian companies to become involved trust me I’d be there to help with the blueprint.

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