Explore Life Sciences S.2 Ep.2: Helen Raftery – CEO of Junior Achievement Ireland

Helen Raftery is CEO of Junior Achievement Ireland (JAI), working with 30 staff and 3,000 business volunteers each year to inspire and motivate young people to realise their potential by valuing education and gaining an understanding of how to succeed in the world of work.

Junior Achievement Ireland (JAI) works with business leaders, students, teachers and other educationalists across 160 supporting organisations to deliver JA programmes to more than 65,000 students in primary and second levels across Ireland annually.

Before assuming her current role, Helen enjoyed opportunities to teach and to work across the public, private and voluntary sectors, including roles in two National Governing Bodies of Sport, and at the Irish Sports Council, in the eight years spanning its emergence from voluntary committee to statutory agency.

Her doctoral studies focussed on the work of volunteer directors/ board members in non-profits, with a particular emphasis on the governance of sport and the role of voluntary leaders in non-profit organisations.

Her clarion call is the need to ensure young people get every opportunity to participate, enjoy and excel in the area of their choosing – be it technology, sport, cultural or academic pursuits – wherever their passions and talents lead them we need to contribute to an environment in which young people can follow their dreams.

What do you feel are the core benefits of the services JAI provides?
I suppose I will summarise it as the role model effect. I mean nobody volunteers to be a role model. But it does work where you are a volunteer with your own career paths, experiences to share and so on, and when you’re interacting with students, or maybe describing that you didn’t do as well as you liked in your leaving cert, or you weren’t a 100% sure of what you wanted to be when you older. Those kind of messages are hugely important, because if you go back to your teenage self you might have imagined that everyone else knows what they want to be and might feel you’re the only one who isn’t clear. You might think you are only one not enjoying maths or whatever that is. To hear someone else describe that – attend school as much as you can, do your homework as well as you can, work hard, listen to your family, your teachers, they are boring enough messages when repeated all the time, but it does actually work. That’s what works. It’s the role model effect where what students would see as real people, program volunteers to do a JA program with them telling them about their job. They end up being interested in what they were talking about and want to find out more. The volunteer bridges the gap between what they do in school with the world of work.

What has been the overall response to JAI for attendees and stakeholders?
The litmus test is whether companies continue to partner with you. We are celebrating our 25 years in Ireland and we have most of our founding members are still with us. So if you are celebrating 25 years in partnership with the funding organisation, you must be doing something well. The organisations with which we work see the benefits. They want to give back to their local communities and to be a good corporate citizen. When we get to work with their employees there is a sense that the organisation values them as an individual and wants them to shine as an individual in this volunteering role. Our volunteers also report back that they also develop new skills, like enhanced communication skills, more confidence in their presentation skills and in their own abilities and overcoming nervousness. There is a lot there for our supporting organisations and volunteers for what they get from it. You’re not going to the get very precious curriculum time from a teacher unless they see the value of the programme. Schools, students and teachers benefit from our involvement because we align ourselves with the formal curriculum and we’re very careful about the quality of the materials and our supporting organisations volunteers.

If you would like your organisation to volunteer with the JAI, get in touch with them here

How does JAI prepare students for the world they are going to face?
From the point of view of the broader definition of what we do is entrepreneurial education- giving students the opportunity to experience to work in teams, to negotiate their way around a problem to take on on a new challenge and to interact with a role model from the world of work. We have European wide data that shows the benefits of that kind of education very clear. Students get the opportunity to engage in early stage entrepreneurial education and the age groups that we work with, are actually four or five times more likely to start their own business.

Listen to our first episode “The Science of Business” with Kevin Walsh here.

Listen to our previous episode 1 with Dr. Ruth Freeman from the Science Foundation Ireland here.

Listen to the full podcast now