Joshua Lavine and Laura Mendelow share the conviction that young people benefit from learning about leadership.
As such, the president of Main Street’s Capitol Benefits and the owner of the Gaithersburg-based Mendelow Consulting Group, respectively, joined forces to design and implement LeaderTrip, a weeklong hands-on program for nine middle schoolers, which included their own sons.
“We took them to different businesses and organizations around the D.C. area to learn about what it takes to run them. We also brought in a variety of inspirational speakers,” Lavine said. “Each student took on a business role each day and filled those roles by asking appropriate questions to the leaders of the organizations we visited.”
The idea for LeaderTrip stemmed from the two principals’ dissatisfaction last summer when both their sons “attended a leadership camp that sounded very promising,” Mendelow said. “It was so poorly executed that I ended up getting half of my money back. I was really upset and disappointed.”
As an executive coach who trains both public- and private-sector adult leaders, Mendelow recognized why she was distressed. “I saw it as a huge missed opportunity for middle school-aged kids to learn about leadership,” she said. “After having two kids of my own—now ages 15 and 12—I began seeing the transference of leadership skills both at work and at home.”
She opted to “turn my frustration into passion and ambition to start our own program.” Aware she “couldn’t do it alone,” she invited Lavine to take part in her “crazy idea” for a leadership camp. “With my background in leadership and experiential education, and Josh’s experience in business and his connections in the community, we made a great team,” Mendelow observed.
As for the camp’s name, LeaderTrip, she credited their sons—Bennet Lavine and Drew Mendelow. The name conveyed that the plan was to “take trips every day to different organizations and learn about leadership.”
The next step was to “gauge interest, (then) follow up” with parents of incoming seventh-graders from Ridgeview and Lakelands Park middle schools, Lavine said.
LeaderTrip began Aug. 19 with “teaching the kids to work as a team at The Edge Ropes Course at George Mason University. We ended the week giving back to the community at Habitat for Humanity. The middle three days were spent with a variety of businesses,” Lavine said.
“Every person in the group was assigned a role within their ‘company’: Chief Executive Officer, CFO (Financial), CMO (Marketing), CPO (People) and COO (Operating),” Lavine said. “Using these roles, they completed challenges, played games and interviewed the leaders of the organizations we visited.”
“At the end of the day—again, using their assigned roles—they provided feedback to the organization as to how they can improve. By the end of the week, they really understood what these roles mean, and they did a great job of taking them on,” he concluded.
For Mendelow, “the focus on a different leadership area each day (that was) incorporated into all the activities,” worked well.
“The best part was that the kids were having so much fun, they didn’t realize how much they were learning along the way.”
During the camp week, Lavine emailed parents about the substance of their campers’ days. On Monday, he wrote, “Our theme was ‘connect.’ We spent the entire day getting them to understand their roles and teaching them how to work as a team. Even for things like ordering milkshakes, I had my COO take charge of the situation, gather the orders and present them. The kids completed a bunch of challenges designed to get them communicating and working together like they would need to do if they were running a real company or organization.”
For the theme “innovation,” the group had a “real-life” challenge: helping the Capitol Benefits marketing team “come up with ideas for a welcome kit that goes out to all new clients,” Lavine said. “We discussed our target market, our purpose and what we were hoping to accomplish, and they came up with some fabulous ideas!”
Next was a trip to TopGolf in Ashburn, Virginia, “which has the highest sales volume of any TopGolf in the country. Their CMO took us on a private tour, discussed some of their technology, marketing strategies, revenue streams, expenses and more,” said Lavine.
When the theme was “persistence and resilience,” Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman “talked (to them) about what it takes to be a leader and how being a mayor can be similar to running a private business.”
Ashman regularly deals with financial, people, marketing, operating and leadership issues. Also in conjunction with resilience, former Redskin Brian Mitchell spoke to the group about how he overcame adversity in his life, Mendelow said, then “the kids experienced overcoming physical challenges at NinjaBE, an American Ninja Warrior gym.”
On day number four, said Lavine, Jim Van Stone, Monumental Sports and Entertainment president of business operations, spoke to the group “about the business of sports and then gave the kids a tour of Capital One Arena including the Wizards and Capitals locker rooms.”
And on Friday, LeaderTrip’s final day, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity (Metro Area) “spoke to the kids about how important it is for leaders to give back to the community,” Lavine said. “The kids built playhouses that will be given to local families in need.” In addition, Lavine’s and Mendelow’s companies “made a donation to Habitat based on the number of points the kids earned all week completing challenges.”
The program exceeded Mendelow’s expectations. “You know, you have a vision, but you never really know what it’s going to look like once you put it into play. The kids were absolutely appreciative of the entire program, so that was a big plus, but the way we were able to incorporate experiential learning into the program was the biggest success.”
Her son Drew said he “learned amazing leadership skills that I can use in my everyday life. And, had a lot of fun doing it.”
At the Capital One Arena, Drew “learned that adults have to work as teams, too, and that they can accomplish amazing things really quickly—like changing the arena from an ice hockey rink to a basketball court in two hours!” And at Habitat, he noted, “Our focus that day was on ‘service,’ and it taught me that, as a leader, you need to give more than you receive.”
A feedback form asked the kids if they would recommend the program, Mendelow said. “To which they all responded, ‘No! We don’t want to open it up to anyone else! This is our special group!’”
Will LeaderTrip be available next summer? “At this point, we’re still recovering, but we’ll get back to work soon on deciding what next year will look like,” Mendelow said. “This is a unique experience; no one else is offering something like LeaderTrip,”
Lavine said he “would love to do it again,” but must consider whether to take on the “challenge to balance running a business and leading this group at the same time.” If he does, he said, “we’ll try to increase the number of girls—we had seven boys and two girls this year—and look for a wider range of the types of places we visit. I’d like to incorporate a restaurant into the session and possibly some more local businesses.”
For a second go-round, Mendelow does not envision “changing too much in terms of our formula around the experiential learning design. One thing we said we’d do differently is to meet with each business owner in advance and more fully explain the purpose of this program.”
“Now that we know what we’re doing (LOL), we can explain it more clearly to others.”