If you were to travel back in time to when I was in tenth grade and ask any of my teachers, coaches, or family friends to describe me, you would have gotten one resounding answer from all of them: quiet. I was mousy and painfully shy. I did everything in my power to not be seen, acknowledged, and definitely not heard. Tenth grade was also the year that I first participated in JA Company Program. It was on a complete whim – I had attended JA’s summer camps and was looking for something different to do in my spare time, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I quickly found out that my company members were full of confidence and entrepreneurial spirit, and were well prepared to bring our company to success. We decided to sell infinity scarves and set an initial goal of producing and selling 150 scarves. Following the lead of my President and Vice President of Sales, I made my own sales goal and immediately dreaded the idea of having to actually make any sales. Not only did I have to talk to people, but I had to convince them to buy our scarves. In a panic, I ignored all the sales training the team had given us, and spent all my own money buying the scarves I had in my inventory. I figured I would keep that up for as long as I could, and if I could make my sales goal without having to talk to anyone, I’d be in the clear! Lucky for quiet me, my fellow company members were sales experts and we ended up selling over 240 scarves in the eighteen-week period and won the Sales Company of the Year Award. I decided to take a break the year after, partly because I had emptied my bank account buying scarves, and mostly because I was terrified of stepping outside of my comfort zone. At that moment, I was happy to fade back into the background.  

In twelfth grade, one of my classes participated in an in-class JA program. On the first day, Karen Chafe, the program manager at the time, walked in and came right up to me. She remembered my name, my company, the product we did, and how successful our sales had been. I was shocked. It seemed surreal to me that people had remembered I was even there, let alone remember anything that I had done. The moment sparked something in me – maybe I didn’t have to simply fade into the background anymore. When a few weeks later Karen mentioned that Company Program registration had opened, I signed up during her talk. I was still painfully nervous when the first meeting came around, but far more curious and excited about the possibilities of the year. My mentors pushed me to try something new and put myself out there, and so I (very tentatively) went for a management position and to my surprise, was elected Vice President of Human Resources. As the program went on, I started to realize that I didn’t have to just be a quiet kid.  

Mid-December came around, and our production was in full swing. We were making bath bombs, and knew that Christmas-time was going to have a huge impact on our sales. From the suggestion of our mentors, the team agreed to do the one thing I was most scared of doing – door to door sales. While I was terrified, trudging through the snow and knocking on strangers’ doors, the faith that our mentors and entire team had made me fight against everything I knew to be true about myself, and I convinced myself that I was capable of being a salesperson. We didn’t make any sales that night. But still, I couldn’t believe that the shy kid from two short years ago was able to take that on. By the end of the year, my fear of speaking was overcome by a passion for our company and confidence in my team’s skillset and perseverance. I led team building activities, designed participation incentives, and even volunteered to be a speaker at the sales pitch competition.  

My love for JA has grown in new ways, as I’ve now worked on the programs and fundraising teams, and am now running Company Program myself. This year, I had the chance to speak to 30 classes of high school students from across London to get them excited about joining Company Program. For the first time, I got to be on the other side of the room, watching students’ faces as their interest grew and they asked questions. In early November, I got to see those same faces at the JA Centre, nervous and a little tentative, but with that same spark of curiosity and excitement that I remember so well. Every year, the best part of Company Program is seeing that spark bloom into confidence, and seeing those quiet, tentative students realize what they are capable of. I can’t wait to see what this year holds.  


Zoe Burness 

Program Manager
Company Program and Camps
JA South Western Ontario