Magazine May 2019

Junior Achievement of Arkansas

junior achievement

by Caleb Talley

Sheffield Nelson

As Billie Jean King once famously said, “You have to see it to be it.” And that’s true for the thousands of Arkansas students who do not have the privilege of a professional role model to help instill in them the value of work-readiness, financial literacy and entrepreneurship in a real-world setting. Junior Achievement of Arkansas works to bridge that gap by connecting Arkansas students K-12 access to successful men and women to serve as examples for whom they can learn from and emulate. 

Junior Achievement of Arkansas helps students realize the value of their education and the impact it will have on their future. The organization utilizes the time and experiences of professional volunteers to deliver programs that help show students the possibilities that lay before them. 

For a century, the national Junior Achievement organization – founded by Theodore Vail, president of American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T); Horace Moses, president of Strathmore Paper Co.; and Senator Murray Crane of Massachusetts – has been dedicated to giving young people the knowledge and skills necessary to own their economic success. And thanks to the forward thinking of a few Arkansas businessmen more than 30 years ago, the organization has helped change the lives of tens of thousands of students in the Natural State. 

During the 2017-18 school year, Junior Achievement reached more than 12,800 students from more than 550 classrooms in the central to north-central Arkansas region, utilizing more than 575 volunteers in the halls of 78 schools. Since the organization was established in Arkansas, approximately 276,000 students from 12,000 classrooms have been impacted.

Respected Arkansas businessman, attorney and two-time gubernatorial candidate Sheffield Nelson seized on 

the concept of Junior Achievement in the mid-1980s, understanding the impact the organization could have on students who, like him, did not have access to such advantages. 

“When I grew up, we had nothing related to business in the classroom,” Nelson says. “Even as we looked at it in 1987, some schools had provisions for some business courses, but not the practical type where you have a businessman come and sit down and talk to you about economics, business, and answers your questions. 

“I think it gave them the exposure they might not have otherwise had. This opens their minds to things they may want to do in the future. I would have loved to have had that back when I was younger, to have that advantage,” he adds. 

Nelson brought Junior Achievement of Arkansas to life in 1987 with the help of friends and colleagues, including Mack McLarty and Jerry Jones. 

“The more I learned about it, the more I liked it,” Nelson says of the organization.

“I started gathering together a bunch of central Arkansas leaders. I got a good-sized group of people together – probably about 20 – when we kicked it off. We had people of the highest caliber. We had Mack McLarty, Jerry Jones, Sidney Moncrief, Herschel Friday. I could go on and on. They were all interested and invested in this concept.”

McLarty, who was both a friend and colleague of Nelson’s, was among the first to lock arms with Junior Achievement. More than three decades later, he’s still amazed by the impact and longevity of the organization. 

Mack McLarty

“It’s been more sustaining and larger than we ever envisioned,” McLarty says. “I’d like to tell you that Sheffield Nelson and I had this vision in place, that we had it all mapped out. But that would not be true. We were just trying to get started, and we did. I think, in any endeavor, it’s kind of like the Vince Lombardi quote: ‘It’s harder to stay on top than to get on top.’ It’s sometimes harder to sustain even a worthy effort than it is to get it started. 

“Now, to have nearly 13,000 students and 578 classrooms in 19 school districts, that’s something you can take pride in being a part of,” he adds. “I think where Junior Achievement is so relevant is it clearly connects with high school students. To be exposed to men and women that are in business is a real positive thing. I think it has a natural connectivity to both smaller businesses –kind of main street entrepreneurship – and larger companies.”

Nelson says it’s his upbringing in rural east Arkansas that’s helped shape his approach to education and professional mentorship. 

“I did have the advantage of growing up very poor in east Arkansas,” Nelson says. “I grew up in the Delta. I lived in Clarendon, West Helena, Wynne and Brinkley, which is about as Delta as you can get. I felt that it was very important to tell students about my background, to tell them that if they’ll make the effort and work hard, you’ll have the chance to advance in life. I’ve believed that forever, and I’ve seen it work.

“I think the best thing you can do is get an education,” he adds. “The ones who are generally held back are those who stopped trying before graduating high school or stopped at a high school diploma. While there are exceptions, the ones who’ve had the best chance to advance are the ones who got college educations. I try to get students interested in the business concepts so they can consider that as a possibility.”

Like many students without professional role models, Nelson grew up not knowing exactly what career path he would take. He hoped that through Junior Achievement, he could help young students find their way in life. 

“As a kid, I did not know what I wanted to do when I grew up,” he says. “I didn’t have anybody talking to me about it. That’s one of the 

things I thought we could do through Junior Achievement. If [a student] didn’t have family at home in the business world, we could give them the background to look at, job possibilities and guidance.

“I think we did that. Just in the comments and letters through the years, of people telling me how much they appreciated the opportunity and what it had meant to them. Many of them went on to college, finished their degrees and would write to me saying, ‘I’m now a lawyer,’ or ‘I’m an engineer.’ And that’s what we set out to do. We wanted to get all of them interested in getting a higher education and doing the best they could do for themselves and their families. 

McLarty, who spent years serving at the pleasure of multiple presidents, including as chief of staff for longtime friend President Bill Clinton, counts the successes of Junior Achievement as some of his greatest accomplishments.

“When I talk about my time in government – when I had the privilege to serve in the White House with President Clinton – people ask you what was the most important or what do you remember,” McLarty says. “You certainly remember certain achievements and moments in foreign policy or crises or whatever. But what really resonates the most is when you see a person whose life has been affected or impacted in a positive way by something that you tried to put forward. 

“And I think, when you see these young people in Junior Achievement, they stand up and talk about what it’s meant to them and their understanding of our democratic system, our free market system of business. Once you see that firsthand and see the impact, that’s the ball game. That’s the real impact. And that’s why you do it. So, to me, that’s really what the program is all about.”

Junior Achievement of Arkansas will host its annual Legacy Award Business Luncheon on May 23, at the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel in North Little Rock. The luncheon is the largest fundraiser for the organization, and it is during this event that Junior Achievement honors the visionary leaders who have “displayed exceptional leadership in supporting academic excellence in Arkansas.” 

Sam Alley

The Nelson Summit Award, named after Sheffield Nelson, is given to the company that has shown a deep commitment to educating Arkansas’ youth. This year, that award goes to Walmart. 

Junior Achievement will be awarding the Legacy Award to Sam Alley, CEO of VCC, the largest retail construction company in the nation, headquartered in Little Rock. 

Alley has supported Junior Achievement for years and has used his life story to help inspire and educate students he mentors. Alley came to the United States from Jerusalem at 14 years old and did not speak a word of English. 

“I started in the U.S. at 14, not speaking English, working the cash register of a grocery store in Prothro Junction, learning from my father about overhead and profits and service and about capitalism,” Alley says. “When I learned about what Junior Achievement does, it made me want to be involved with them. To be able to talk to and mentor the students has been great.

“I had the chance to go to Rose City, where I had gone when I moved to the U.S., to tell ninth graders about how I made it not speaking English,” he adds. “I told them that you always have to have hope. You have to work hard. And I tell them they have an advantage because at least they speak English.”

Alley enjoys instilling in students the value of entrepreneurship, one of the staples of Junior Achievement’s programming.  

“The way you can make it is being an entrepreneur, thinking outside of the box,” he says. “Go out and take risks. Continue to work hard and be able to put the effort on being successful. If you don’t make it happen, no one else will help you. What I love about Junior Achievement is working with kids to teach them entrepreneurship.

“The opportunities are here in America. We made it in the grocery business. My dad told me, ‘If we can make it in the grocery business, you can make it anywhere.’ Well, he didn’t realize that the construction business has a lower margin than the grocery business,” Alley adds with a laugh. “The American dream is real.”

And Junior Achievement of Arkansas is helping students realize their American dream. 

For tickets or more information on the Junior Achievement of Arkansas Legacy Award Business Luncheon, visit 


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