Last Updated on Friday, 6 January, 2023 at 2:26 pm by Andre Camilleri
Giselle Borg Olivier interviewed Chris Vassallo Cesareo, JA Malta Chairperson
We often read about notable business people who have achieved great heights throughout their career, typically focusing on the successes but not necessarily the journey.
Patricia Brooks-Nobles – Senior Vice President and Market Executive at Bank of America; James Brown – Sports announcer, host of The NFL Today on CBS and Inside the NFL on Showtime; Anna Camp – Stage and television actress; Slava Rubin – CEO of the crowd-funding platform, Indiegogo; and Gene Simmons – Musician and co-lead vocalist of Kiss, wouldn’t appear to have much in common with each other, and even less with you; however, if you were part of a JA (formerly known as Young Enterprise) team during your sixth form years, then you share the same entrepreneurial experience with these stars.
Following on from this piece of contemporary trivia, JA Malta Chairman, Chris Vassallo Cesareo, takes us through the 30-year history of this valuable organisation that has proffered numerous opportunities to so many people under the age of 30.
Who is JA Malta?
The name JA Malta might be new to people because the organisation rebranded in 2022, aligning itself with JA Europe and JA Worldwide. Formerly known as Young Enterprise for several years, the brand developed into JAYE (Junior Achievement Young Enterprise), with its bold orange and green colour scheme, bringing the ‘JA’ into the picture for the first time. It eventually developed into JA Malta, changing both the name and colour scheme as it now sports its smart teal colour.
Regardless of its name at the time, the lessons learned in terms of teamwork and entrepreneurship were certainly invaluable for the alumni who experienced the programme.
As Chris correctly and succinctly points out, “What we have been doing for the last 30 years is nurturing future entrepreneurs, and it’s priceless.”
“Many people still refer to us as Young Enterprise because that is what they were accustomed to for several years. We remain the same people, but are now called JA Malta, with the focus being given to Junior Achievement. JA is an international organization and it’s important to recognize and develop the international opportunities on a local level, which we are doing through the rebranding and the reorganization of the board that happened in 2022.”
Restructuring the JA Malta Board
Chris explains that the JA Malta Board comprises nine people who support each other through their individual knowledge and experience, allowing for minimal cross conflict. Furthermore, all the roles are voluntary and with the new set up the chairperson takes on more of a facilitator role.
“We meet once a month and meetings usually last 2 hours, but beyond that there are other meetings about particular topics that also take a couple of hours each, every time.”
Evidently, sitting on the JA Malta Board is more than simply attending meetings – there is dedication from people who are passionate about the sector and are excited to leave their mark. Every country sets up their JA Board according to their statute, and JA Malta’s board decision was based on having specialists in different areas to make the Board 1) more diverse and dynamic, and 2) healthier.
The Board comprises the following people: Nicky Camilleri comes from a finance background and helps with internal accounts, future growth, and potential future funding. Niki Travers Tauss is an entrepreneur in his early 40s and an ex-Junior Achiever – he handles the JA Alumni, looking at opening new doors within the business community to bring in more fellow businesspeople and entrepreneurs. Dr. Kristina Rapa Manche is the legal advisor on the board, while Mark Drago is the governance advisor. Klaus Conrad is an expert in entrepreneurship education, while Matthew von Brockdorff is the longest serving board member who covers strategic thinking coupled with advice from previous boards. There is also Dr. Karl Briffa who is a past Chairperson, as well as David Xuereb, ex-President of the Chamber of Commerce, who is very strong on the ESG side, which is what JA Malta champions. Finally, Deputy Chairperson is Fabianne Ruggier, who is very strong on strategy and HR.
“I think the most professional respect is to let everyone champion their areas, and I must say that it’s working,” says Chris.
As Chris explains, the long-term vision and strategy for JA Malta is paramount to him and the team. “Fabianne and I had joined the Board at the same time, in our respective roles, and I structured it in a way where the hierarchy was as flat as possible. We wanted to plan the way forward together based on the combined longevity of our roles; hence, the six-year strategy plan, understanding where we were and where we needed to get to.”
One of the actions taken was to restructure the board to make it suitable for all involved. There were people on the board who had been there for many years due to their love and respect for JA, such as past presidents and chairs, and many wanted to remain involved and continue to share their expertise. Therefore, because this is an invaluable resource of historical knowledge and legacy (some members were founders), the Advisory Board to the Chair was created.
The main reason behind this decision was continuity as Chris explains. “I could find myself in a situation where we would be discussing a JA event that we are due to host, for example, and I wouldn’t know what happened in the past and how best to tackle certain situations. With the Advisory Board set up, I can turn to them and ask for their guidance based on their actual experience.”
“I was entrusted by the previous Chair to up the ante and I don’t wish to let down the ancestry, but let it continue. Hopefully, what I’ve managed to bring to the team is the entrepreneurial and the business impetus that was somewhat lacking. Now that the foundations have regrouped and we’ve updated our strong 30-year history, let’s go for another 30 years.”
What does JA Malta offer?
Due to its 30-year history, JA Malta needed to ensure that their programmes were still relevant and of value to today’s youth, whether at 6th Form level or University level. The organisation also needed to understand what was happening with their overseas counterparts and what was being offered by the international market.
“JA is represented in over 45 countries in Europe and over 100 countries worldwide. The target is to have over 10 million participants go through our programmes annually internationally, which can open a multitude of doors and opportunities,” states Chris.
“The value is twofold. There is the value that is gained from the actual ‘learning by doing’ part of the programme across the three pillars: entrepreneurial skills, financial literacy, and employability. However, there is a secondary long-term value that is less pronounced; all JA alumni form part of an international network – and when you say that you’re a JA, you are a JA.”
Forming part of such a strong international network can be of significant help to anyone who is either looking for opportunities outside of Malta, or who is looking to do business in Malta with foreign counterparts, as it provides a common ground for networking and collaboration.
The International Side of JA
As part of the future vision, JA Malta intends to increase its international presence by getting its Board members to be more involved at an international level, and potentially getting a seat on the Board of Executives.
While this is still a work in progress, one immediate success that JA Malta have secured is bringing the JA Leadership Summit to Malta on the 16 & 17 March 2023. This conference comprises three high-level meetings – the JA European CEOs meeting, the JA Europe Board Meeting, and the JA European Individual Countries Chairpersons Meeting.
JA Malta will be setting the agenda along with international JA peers, wherein the top brass of several countries will be travelling to Malta to discuss important operational and strategic issues about the future of entrepreneurship and work readiness within the youth sector.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for us to promote what we do, to strengthen our position within JA, and to promote the mindset of collaboration. It also allows for local businesses and the government to understand and realise the potential and strength that JA Malta can offer, as we hope that this Summit becomes an annual occurrence,” says Chris.
As often happens in international organizations and franchises, despite there being a common goal, different countries work in different ways, which can lead to inefficient outcomes and duplication of work. Chris explains that through this Leadership Summit, JA Malta wants to consolidate ideas among JA countries to share resources.
“We want to highlight the issues and concerns that are faced by most countries so that these will be formally addressed. We also want delegates to leave with something tangible, so we hope to launch the JA Alumni network database. The long-term vision would be that JA resources are interlinked to provide a better service across an international platform.”
These plans are being spearheaded by the CEO along with an operational and administrative team focused on events, administration, and outreach.
“Although this might be thinking ahead,” admits Chris, “being part of an international organization allows you to be creative and think further than our shores. We preach this mentality to our participants, so we must preach it during our board meetings.”
How can JA Malta impact the local industry?
Although the Summit will put JA Malta on the international map, Chris stresses that a priority is for JA Malta to be recognized as leaders within the field of entrepreneurship on a national level.
“What we do affects future generations, there’s no doubt about it. We have no ties – we are independent, we are apolitical, and we do this because we genuinely believe in the importance of our work.”
Chris accentuates the thematically important function that JA Malta has within the educational sphere, albeit on the sidelines, as has been the case for all these years.
“Wearing my hat as a business owner and Maltese entrepreneur, I really feel that JA is a great way to give back. It’s empowering to see youngsters go through our programme; I learn from them as much as they learn from me… it’s a two-way thing.”
Every year, JA Malta holds an event called Leaders for the Day, where approximately 50 participants have the opportunity to shadow 50 leaders at their workplace. This gives young people the chance to understand the inner workings of an industry that they may be curious about, while also networking with and getting to know key individuals in that sector.
As Chris explains, “Not everybody has contacts, and through this they will have an instant contact to a leader in the industry they wish to be part of. They might apply for a job one day and require a reference, this person could end up as a mentor – these are priceless moments.”
Chris encourages other business people to get involved in these initiatives, to contribute towards a young person’s experience, and show that the business community is, in fact, about coming together as a community.
The effects of JA Malta’s outreach
JA Malta is also heavily invested in its outreach programme to ensure that all those who are eligible to participate and benefit from its programmes are aware of this opportunity.
Apart from the Company Programme that targets 6th Form students, JA Malta also runs the Start-up Programme that caters for approximately 130 students each year. While the foundation of these programmes is entrepreneurial in nature, there is a strong focus on the all-important life skills such as team building, networking, and problem-solving. The JA Malta programmes allow students to practice and hone these skills within a safe environment where failure is not the opposite of success.
“Students can fail, and that’s fine. In fact, that gives us and our JA network the opportunity to coach them on how to examine that failure, learn from it, and then get on with it,” says Chris.
JA Malta has upgraded their office and training space, known as The Leadership Hub, to provide an elevated service to not just their students, but also teams across various industries, wherein a bespoke programme could be designed for a company to develop their team building skills, while also sharpening their individual entrepreneurial mindset.
In fact, this mindset is a key component of JA Malta’s programmes, and one that they ensure is measured for continued growth and results. Before students embark on a JA programme, they are presented with a questionnaire where they are asked: ‘Have you had to take decisions within a team?’ A resounding 80% reply in the negative. When asked the same question after completing the programme, 100% reply with a ‘Yes’, since this skill is a key factor within the programme. However, this question is then followed up with: ‘What pushes you to make that decision?’, and overwhelmingly the reply is: ‘For the better of the community’.
It is this shift in the mindset of students that happens within a few months that spurs JA Malta forward.
What’s next for JA Malta?
JA Malta has different audiences; however, their message to each audience is a clear one. Educational institutions (and even parents) are encouraged to promote the JA Malta programmes and the benefits that they offer – and students are encouraged to avail themselves of these opportunities. Businesses are urged to get in contact with JA Malta to explore the advantages and benefits that collaboration will lead to (including the possibility of business leads through the JA network). Finally, it’s imperative that government and other entities recognize the positive impact of JA Malta within the educational sector, based on their track record and considering that much of the work done is done on a voluntary basis.