A hundred adults and high school juniors gathered around tables in a conference room at Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Boise plant, brainstorming new product ideas. Their task: Come up with something that solves a need for high school students and pitch it to a panel of three business people in a mock version of the ABC reality show "Shark Tank."
Eleven people at Table 10 quickly focused in on a website that would link students with mentors of different professions, provide details about internships and help students find job-shadowing possibilities.
"Students are not given the opportunity to know what they would like to do as they go on," says Alexa Wolfe, 16, a Boise High School junior, one of the 11.
Kristin Muchow, vice president of a Boise company that arranges corporate meetings and a tablemate of Alexa, agrees. "There are a lot of jobs out there that students don't even know exist," Muchow says.
Table 10 branded its product "What Now?" and walked away with first prize, besting nine competitors. The prize? A pat on the back from judges.
After the competition, Mason Fuller, CEO of Atlas Resell Management and one of the judges, said he liked Table 10's originality. "All three of us love the idea of mentorships," he said. He told the group he hoped they wouldn't let go of their dream.
The whole exercise took a little more than an hour. For the adults, the event was among hundreds of hours they will spend over two years as part of their participation in Leadership Boise, a 38-year-old program sponsored by the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce.
During the program, Leadership adults will visit schools, go to medical facilties, spend a day at the Capitol or tour a prison.
"The hope at the root of it is for two years of experience, a different person emerges," says Peter Barton, an attorney at Givens Pursley and an alum of Leadership Boise who is serving a one-year term as its president. "A person who has more understanding of the Valley, its businesses, its government and its nonprofit needs, and the way they can help."
Leadership Boise draws participants from big companies like Idaho Power, small ones like Meeting Systems (Muchow's company, which has five employees), and nonprofits like the Idaho affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
Half of Boise's City Council - Lauren McLean, Ben Quintana and TJ Thomson - are Leadership Boise alumni.
Managers who must free an employee to attend say they get an enriched worker back after two years. Graduates often can bring a fresh approach to a company, managers say.
Participants say the program knocks them out of their work silos and exposes them to parts of the community they didn't know existed.
More than 1,400 people have completed Leadership Boise since it started in 1975. Neighboring cities including Meridian, Nampa and Caldwell have similar programs. The Meridian Chamber of Commerce started its leadership program in 2004 and has graduated about 175 people. Nampa's program is 18 years old with 600 graduates.
Classes in Boise's program are small - about 50 people - and intentionally diverse to reflect big business, small business and nonprofit organizations, says Carrie Westergard, who oversees the chamber's program.
Attending requires hours away from work. The group meets one day a month for much of the two years. The cost is $1,850 and is often paid by employers. Attendees or their companies must belong to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, although they don't have to live in Boise.
Getting in requires an application and an interview. Leadership Boise is looking for people who show a sense of engagement with the community or a previous community if they haven't been in Boise long.
During the interview they are asked about their accomplishments, what they want to learn from the program and what they think they will contribute.
From 85 applicants in a typical year, Leadership Boise takes about 50. Admission is often affected by the chamber's desire to keep the program from becoming over-represented by small or large businesses or nonprofit groups. Those who do not make it are encouraged to reapply the next year.
The chamber also oversees the Boise Leadership Academy, a group of about 50 high school juniors from the Boise-Meridian area. They occasionally work jointly with Leadership Boise, such as on the Shark Tank exercise at HP.
SAME COMMUNITY, NEW VISION
Pat Burton, 37, director of operations for St. Luke's Eagle, an outpatient clinic, was well versed in health issues when she was accepted for Leadership Boise in 2011. She thought she knew more about her community. "I had lived here 20 years and considered myself active," she says.
As she went through Leadership Boise, however, she discovered how little she really knew.
"I had never been to the Anne Frank Memorial," she says, one stop on her reintroduction to Boise via the leadership program.
Nor did she know about the good things and the challenges the Valley faces in education.
But she learned as she met with educators such as Susan Williamson, principal at Boise School District's Taft Elementary, and Roger Quarles, former Caldwell School District superintendent.
She met Williamson as part of Leadership Boise's annual service project. Burton's class chose to work on a community garden at Taft Elementary School near State and 36th streets. "We did some landscaping," she says. The group also bought books for the school.
Fifteen years ago, Williamson took the then-troubled low-income school and turned it around by applying business-model principles, such as letting data drive decision-making and instruction.
A few years ago, Williamson had to prepare for bringing in refugee students from war-ravaged countries who spoke no English.
"My teachers and staff analyze what [they] need to do, change and get ready for those things," Williamson says.
That made an impression on Burton. "To get to know people like Susan Williamson was amazing," she says.
The same was true when she met Roger Quarles, then Caldwell School District superintendent, who talked to Leadership Boise about how most of the students who come to kindergarten in Caldwell aren't ready for school. They aren't familiar with numbers and struggle with reading skills.
In 2011, Caldwell Schools, with the help of United Way, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation and other groups, started P16, which is aimed at getting preschool children into learning programs to help them succeed in school through college (grade 16).
Exposure to all those things got Burton to thinking about something she thought little about before. She has now become an ardent supporter of early childhood education, something she knows the Idaho Legislature has opposed, because many lawmakers believe that's the job for families, although many business organizations support it. She is supporting the cause with her wallet, giving to programs in United Way that work toward early childhood education.
"You need to look at preschool [if] you want to make a difference," Burton says.
Burton's experience is what Leadership Boise tries for with every class. Expose participants to the community and see what happens.
"The world changes for 50 people," says Barton, the president.
BUILDING A NETWORK AND A BIT OF BUSINESS
Muchow, the Meeting Systems executive, has increased her contacts list considerably since she started attending Leadership Boise.
She's met 16-year-old students who instructed her on green energy and solar panels at the Boise School District's Dennis Technical Education Center. She met a person who is an expert in social media and is already planning to go to lunch and learn more.
"I've connected with people who would be great keynote speakers," she says.
And she's picked up some business.
"I was able to get another client out of this, [so it] totally paid for itself," she says.
Networking brings other benefits, too.
Hilarie Engle, 37, executive director of the Idaho Affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, attended Leadership Boise in 2010-12 and learned some lessons about patience and listening.
"It brought together 50 different people - all different viewpoints," she says "You learn to work with them."
During the second year, first-year alums plan the program for students coming behind them. Engle found herself working with teams of six or seven people from banking, health insurance and other sectors whom she might never have met otherwise but who have since become friends.
Her sharpened listening skills have changed how she does her job. She tended to be a "stick-to-my-guns" sort of leader. Now, she says, she recognizes that the 15 volunteers on her race committee all have the same goal but may not all get there the same way.
PAYBACK FOR THE BOSSES' INVESTMENT
Idaho Power Co. and Intermountain Gas typically send people to the program annually.
"We have seen people grow as a result of this program," says Scott Madison, executive vice president and general manager of Intermountain Gas in Boise.
Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts