JA Alumni Story: Carol Cunningham

Posted in: Alumni Stories

“I encourage the next generation to participate in JA to learn business skills you aren’t otherwise exposed to.” Carol Cunningham recently recounted her time as a JA student, reflecting on how it led her to where she is today. A retired, savvy business owner with decades of experience, Carol attributes much of her success to the foundational skills she learned on her JA journey. But where did it all begin?

Carol grew up in a family of ten children, so when she heard about Junior Achievement in her Sophomore year at Santa Monica High School in California, she jumped at the opportunity. “It was a chance to escape,” she recalled, noting that it provided both a skill-building as well as a social opportunity for her.

The JA Company program was held at a building in Westwood where students from all over West L.A. broke into teams, or companies, headed by volunteers from local businesses. In her first year of JA, her “company” made keychains that they sold door-to-door. This marked her first venture into entrepreneurship, which would kick-start her future career.

Her second year in the JA Company program brought her a “position” with the JA Bank, assisting other JA companies and learning critical financial skills along the way. She excelled to the point of being elected Treasurer and ultimately won “Treasurer of the Year” for Southern California, sending her to the 1961 JA National Convention in Ohio and putting her in the local paper.

Paralleling her JA experience, Carol was also selected to be in a control group for a new mathematics program at her high school. “If it wasn’t for School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG) and the JA Company program, I wouldn’t have had the math and business skills to get me through early crises after graduation.”

Upon graduating from high school as an art major, she applied for a receptionist job, but her financial and entrepreneurial skillset landed her a job doing proposals for brokers. She saved up money to attend Northeastern University and eventually transferred to MIT, graduating with a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Civil Engineering.

Throughout her multi-faceted and exceptional career, trailblazing as a female engineer, Carol focused her work on hydro-electric projects, where she owned businesses, provided consulting services, managed projects, and even created an education course on basic life skills, for which she credits JA. Later in her career, Carol moved to the Philippines with her husband where she remained for 17 years, developing hydro-electric projects and starting a fair-trade company and cooperate making fashion jewelry that provides employment opportunities for women and families impacted by the San Rogue Dam Project.

Carol retired in 2014 and now lives with her husband in Arizona, volunteering in the community, occasionally with JA. She reflects fondly on her time in the JA program and attributes much of her foundational skillset to the experience. We appreciate her continued support as a volunteer and for spreading the word about the impact of JA education.