In the early 1960s, a shy Columbia Heights High School student named Jim Hemak was working through Junior Achievement on a project to buy and assemble birdhouses for sale to homeowners.

Hemak was laying out the production line one afternoon when he suggested to the JA adviser that the shabby paint job on the birdhouses, which were painted after assembly and not well in the nooks and crannies of the contraptions, would be improved if the stain was applied before assembly. 

“They thought I was the engineering genius of the world,” quipped Hemak, 70, with a chuckle.

The student president of the JA company was so excited that he enlisted the introverted Hemak to launch a door-to-door sales blitz with him.

It worked, even though Hemak usually hung back by the bushes while his classmate pitched the housewife at the door.

Hemak’s company team won a Twin Cities JA award for improved performance.

Hemak, who still gets excited talking about the experience, said it imbued him with a sense of confidence and entrepreneurship that transcended his career.

Hemak graduated from the University of Minnesota business school, served in the Army and worked for JA for 16 years before becoming a successful Great Clips franchisee in the Denver area in the 1980s.

These days, retired in the Twin Cities, he shows up at Columbia Heights High as a volunteer and otherwise for JA.

Hemak and his wife, Pat, also are the lead givers, with a $4 million donation to the $20 million capital campaign of Junior Achievement of Upper Midwest that recently topped $18 million.

The campaign, of which Hemak is the volunteer chairman, will finance expanded programs, improved technology and the new JA building that it has purchased and remodeled and which will open late this year on St. Paul’s University Avenue, on the Green Line LRT line in the Midway.

“JA was a life-changing experience for me and inspired me to understand what I could do and gave me some confidence,” Hemak said. “This new facility, replacing our building in Maplewood, will double our capacity. It’s centrally located on the Green Line and it will facilitate more kids and volunteers because of easy access to a more-central location.”

The new building will allow JA to double the number of students served in its experiential learning labs — JA BizTown and JA Finance Park — from 17,000 to 34,000 in the Twin Cities.

Hemak also is aware of changing demographics in recent years and the fact that women, minorities and immigrants disproportionately start and run small businesses. And JA is one important way that many of them can gain exposure to the business world and learn applicable skills early, avoiding some of the pitfalls that doom fledgling enterprises.

Columbia Heights High, with a nearly all-white student body in the 1960s, is now a majority-minority school.

Hemak is excited by the diversity in JA, including the minority teams several years ago from nearby Edison High School in Northeast that advanced to the JA national competition in Washington D.C.

“It goes back to the mission of JA and the importance of that … to our society and our country,” Hemak said. “With mentors going into classrooms, with JA BizTown, with all the programs available through the [new building], they all help young people get inspired about business and accepting responsibility for their own financial future.

‘‘Inspiration, not just education, is essential for young people to own their financial future.”

Junior Achievement, through integrated programs with schools, business competitions and business mentors, also works with educators and students to make the connection between academic work, training and career success.

During the 2017-2018 school year, JA of the Upper Midwest reached 165,500-plus students in grades K-12 with financial literacy, college-and-career readiness and entrepreneurship education.

It includes nearly 10,000 volunteers, mostly business people, who share their skills and experience.

About 85 percent of JA alumni surveyed indicate that JA enabled them to connect what they learned in the classroom to real life, and two-thirds said JA helped them realize the importance of staying in school.

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Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at