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Athena Award finalist: Robin Wise

Lisa Ryckman //May 1, 2012//

Athena Award finalist: Robin Wise

Lisa Ryckman //May 1, 2012//

Robin Wise will always remember her first big job interview as a life-changing experience – but not in the way you might expect.

At the time, she was a college dropout who worked as a stewardess but longed for the glamour of a public-relations career. So she contacted the Junior Achievement volunteer from her high school program, Mr. Peery, who arranged an interview with a firm in her hometown of Omaha, Neb.

“I walked in, and was introduced to an older woman with a raspy voice and a cigarette hanging out of her mouth,” Wise recalls. “Several minutes into the interview, she looked at me and she said, ‘Honey, you gotta finish college, or all you’ll be is my assistant for the rest of your career.’”

Those blunt words sent Wise hurrying back to the University of Nebraska, where she became her family’s first – and only – college graduate.

“I think Mr. Peery knew exactly what he was doing when he introduced me to her,” Wise says. “It made me realize how important it is for young people to have mentors who can help them navigate the transition into adulthood.”

Fostering those relationships has become Wise’s life work. As president and CEO of Junior Achievement-Rocky Mountain Inc., she has grown the program from 8,000 students in 1991 to 105,000 today, more than 40 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch. This year, 4,000 businesspeople will act as JA volunteers in classrooms, a fact Wise considers her greatest professional accomplishment.

Much of what Wise learned about business – and life – came from working for her father, who owned a small trucking company. Wise earned spending money from sweeping out the backs of his trucks, organizing the warehouse and cleaning the office, but you couldn’t put a price on what she learned.

“Watching my dad work and seeing his involvement in so many volunteer activities, I learned my first lesson about business: You have to enjoy what you do,” Wise says. “He wasn’t driven just by the opportunity to create a significant enterprise; he was driven by the chance to create a life of significance.”

Wise’s own life of significance includes creating leadership roles for women within the JA organization and beyond.

“Robin not only guides JA with excellence and creativity, she personally helps young people believe in the marketplace and trust the power of their own potential,” says University of Northern Colorado Foundation Interim Executive Director Cynthia Evans, who nominated Wise for the Athena Award. “For the past four years, Robin has taught JA programming to students at South High School. In the classroom, Robin is a powerful female role model who opens a world of possibilities to students by explaining economic concepts and discussing career opportunities.”

Marcie Terry was 9 when she met Wise, who coached her through her first public-speaking experience as a JA ambassador, and inspired her to continue in that role for nine years. Now a college freshman, Terry credits Wise with changing her life.

“Without Robin Wise, I would have lost the opportunity to partake in one of the most influential platforms of my life,” she says. “Because of her leadership and example, I was able to find my own voice and become a leader in my own right.”

Wise considers JA volunteers amazing role models who help young women believe in themselves and teach them practical life skills they may not learn anywhere else.

“JA programs inspire a passion for free enterprise and entrepreneurship and instill an understanding of personal financial literacy,” Wise says. “By their example, our volunteers show young girls that being confident in who you are goes a long way in business – and in life.”

An avid golfer, gardener and mother of two, Wise still finds time to serve on several JA Worldwide committees, as well as the Public Education and Business Coalition board, the Colorado Lottery Commission, the Dean’s Leadership Council for the UNC Monfort College of Business and on Gov. John Hickenlooper’s councils on Consumer Credit Code and Workforce Development.

Wise says she’s just following in her father’s footsteps.

“Even as he fought Stage IV colon cancer, he wasn’t just living life: He was leading a life,” she says. “Every day I aspire to live up to his example. It helps that I am doing work that I truly love.”