Shortly after becoming adviser to Heritage University’s branch of the international nonprofit Enactus in 2001, Len Black and his students competed in a regional meet where they demonstrated entrepreneurial projects designed to groom them as future business leaders.
Afterward, some called their performance among the worst they had seen.
“The kids and I stopped at a restaurant in North Bend on the way home,” said Black, the chairman of the school’s business administration department. Instead of feeling humiliated, they told him, “We’re going to come back next year and we’re going to do better.”
Their inexperience, including speaking in front of others, showed the first time. But the following year, the students finished first runner-up. They would go on to win regionals in 2004, qualifying for the national competition.
In the past eight years, Heritage has placed in the top four nationally four times.
Enactus, formerly known as SIFE, is an organization committed to entrepreneurship that aspires to “transform lives and shape a better, more sustainable world” through volunteer work.
Earlier this month, Heritage finished third among 225 colleges and universities at the 2014 national Enactus USA Expo in Cincinnati. The Toppenish private school has developed a winning tradition within the global organization’s mission of promoting entrepreneurial action to improve communities, as well as grooming future business leaders.
“Why are we so consistent? That’s because of the quality of students that we have,” said Black, 71, who brought to Heritage and Enactus decades of international business experience with companies such as Coca-Cola and Duracell. “They’re determined, they work hard, they learn from history and will continue to adapt.”
According to Enactus, 36 countries and more than 66,000 students participate. As part of Enactus, Heritage volunteers contributed to the community here and abroad through 31 projects in the past year.
One endeavor was the creation of a two-week summer camp for at-risk middle school students. Another involved the development of the ADENTRO training program for aspiring entrepreneurs in the agricultural industry. Arguably the most ambitious was traveling to Belize and helping impoverished women set up their own businesses.
Member Michelle Alegria, 29, called the Belize trip a humbling experience because she witnessed the tremendous adversity women there faced.
Sagrario Leon, 21, said their volunteer work and their applied skills will “open gateways” to their professional futures.
“The way students come out well rounded, they can step into any business setting,” she said.
The students had to apply to join the Enactus team. It is a noncredit, volunteer position, sometimes a challenge for students raising a family or working outside of class.
Senior student Adriana Villafan is one example. She has a son and daughter — motivators for her to continue her education after originally dropping out of high school. She will graduate in the fall with a degree in business administration.
Villafan, 24, said she hopes to start a nonprofit one day to give back to the Valley, but she first needed experience. She said Enactus has helped her develop skills such as networking, organization and communication, and she hopes to use them in her future career.
“I couldn’t even go up in front of a classroom before I started with Enactus,” she said. “Having the opportunity to say that I just presented in front of 3,000 people,” referring to the presentation at the national expo, “it just shows that I can overcome way more than I ever thought possible.”