Interview: John Oppenheimer, Founder & CEO of Columbia Hospitality

In honor of National Entrepeneurship Month, we interview John Oppenheimer, JA alum and Founder & CEO of Columbia Hospitality.

Junior Achievement: What was your key driving force to becoming an entrepreneur? Why the hospitality industry?

John Oppenheimer: I developed a passion for the hospitality industry very early in life. As the first skycap at the Boise, Idaho airport, my job was to help travelers haul their luggage. I quickly realized that exceptional service made all the difference. We were only paid by the tips we made, so I immediately learned the importance of friendly, hospitable, enthusiastic service. We serve with these same standards at Columbia Hospitality – quality service speaks volumes to our guests, residents, and clients.

My spirit of entrepreneurship grew thanks to Junior Achievement. I was an active student participant and cherished selling the JA bird feeders door-to-door. That sales experience has stuck with me and I’ve never forgotten the feeling of closing a sale of one of those bird feeders.

JA: What has been your most satisfying moment in business?

JO: What satisfies me in business has evolved over the years. Today, it is incredibly exciting to watch Columbia Hospitality team members grow and increase their responsibilities faster than they ever dreamed possible. Team members loving what they do translates to delighted customers and inevitably positive financial results, both for the business and the team, which thrills me each time it happens.

JA: What characteristics would you say best suit an entrepreneur?

JO: Key characteristics of successful entrepreneurs, in my opinion, can be boiled down to a few key traits: taking risks; acting with urgency; recognition that success is a team sport-happy teams create happy customers; keeping perspective; focusing on exceeding expectations every day with everyone.

JA: What advice do you have for students today to launch a business? What activities would you recommend budding entrepreneurs to invest their time in?

JO: I recommend students get involved in and commit to helping the communities in which they live. For me, active participation in multiple non-profits has been a great educational tool, broadening my perspective and a wonderful way to meet people and other professionals that have like-minded interests. Giving back to the communities in which we operate is also a tenet of Columbia Hospitality through our Columbia Cares program. Those engagements have made me a well-rounded leader. Bottom line – get involved outside of school and commit to making your community a better place.

Please enjoy this Q13 clip of John on the subject of entrepreneurship!

National Apprenticeship Week: Hermanson company Spotlight

JA of Washington is proud and grateful for the strong relationships we have with our corporate and community partners. Their support and engagement make it possible to connect with students from various geographical regions, walks of life, and areas of interest. We have begun strengthening and creating new relationships with organizations that offer Apprenticeship programs that show students that the path to a successful and fulfilling career isn’t only via a 4-year college or university. For National Apprenticeship Week, we’re delighted to spotlight Hermanson Company, a regional leader in Mechanical Systems Construction and a leader in empowering young people to own their success through Apprenticeship and Pre-Apprenticeship programs.

As a leading mechanical contractor in the Pacific Northwest, Hermanson Company offers a comprehensive mechanical system design, construction, and repair & maintenance services suite. For years, they’ve worked to exceed their customers’ expectations through value-driven expertise. Their projects include Amazon headquarters, Google’s Lakefront Blocks, the IKEA Retail store, the Salish Lodge remodel, and more.

Hermanson Company is also an advocate and supporter of Apprenticeship and Pre-Apprenticeship programs for various trades. Their advocacy is instrumental in exposing young people to the wide variety of career options in the trades field.

Hermanson Company’s relationship with JA of Washington is one we cherish deeply. Rick Hermanson, CEO of Hermanson Company has personally and professionally supported JA over the years and has long expressed his desire to help build out the trades industry as a component in JA programming.

In October of 2020, Hermanson Company took part in the North Central Education Service District’s Skills and Technical Sciences Virtual Expo where JA hosted two “booths.” A team of Hermanson’s marketing and financial staff ran the Interviewing for Success and Financial Empowerment booths, answering student questions about apprenticeship programs and general career advice. We appreciate the team’s time and energy in providing these important resources for regional high school students exploring their next educational and professional life steps.

Thanks to partners like Hermanson, RPAC, and ANEW, JA of Washington can expand our vision for our programs and, thus, our students by introducing the trades industry as a key part of our career-readiness pillar. #LetsAchieveTogether

JA Programs Highlight

What are the skills that young people need to master today? For years, math and reading have been at the forefront, however, there are even more fundamental skills that should be part of a student’s well-rounded education: financial literacy; career readiness; and entrepreneurship. Today, we highlight one program from each of our elementary, middle, and high school levels!


JA More than Money is a 5-session program that is designed for the largest elementary age range – 3rd-5th grades. Available virtually or in-person, this program introduces students to skills such as money-management and understanding the market of goods and services. Through hands-on activities and a compelling cast of JA characters, students will learn a practical approach to starting a business and making smart decisions about managing money.


Where can middle school students engage in the real-life experience of creating and maintaining a personal budget? Our most popular middle grade program, JA Finance Park – Virtual utilizes an online platform where students virtually visit the storefronts of real businesses such as Alaska Airlines, Allstate Insurance, Chick-fil-A, Walmart, and more. They receive a life scenario, create their own personal budget, and craft an exciting personal and professional future.


Learning about different career paths and fields of work is an important part of forging a high school student’s future. Our video series of Career Speakers is easy to fit into any schedule and features JA volunteers from all different career backgrounds and professions. This program helps high school students think about the work they might like to do in the future and what steps they can take now in school to achieve their career goals.

Feature: Natalie Vega O’Neil

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’ve interviewed JAWA CEO & President Natalie Vega O’Neil on her roots, her career journey, and the role she feels Hispanic leaders play in the future of the education industry.

JA: Share with us your background, your roots.

NVO: I was born in Northwest Indiana, about an hour outside of Chicago, surrounded by a large, loving Mexican-American family that had landed in Indiana for work in the thriving steel industry. I grew up with a strong understanding of the importance of education and how education creates opportunity. My maternal grandmother, who was a high school graduate (unheard of for an orphan in the 1930s) was passionate about the importance of education and that was echoed by both my mother and my father. I am the middle child of three girls and it was always understood that education was a priority because it would gain us access to opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise.

JA: When did you realize you wanted to follow this career path?

NVO: I attended graduate school on a whim. While working at a non-profit in Chicago, a colleague of mine mentioned she was getting her master’s in social work. I was intrigued and originally thought I would pursue social work as well. However, once I visited the school and sat in on a class on child development, I was hooked. I knew in that exact moment I wanted to work in the field of early learning and advocate for children. While I had absolutely no idea what that work would be, I was certain that I could find a path that would allow me to work on behalf of children but one that wasn’t necessarily in a classroom. I’ve been given incredible opportunities to work in various youth-sector services that all have strong missions connected to equity, access, and education of children.

JA: What have been some of the top challenges you’ve faced during your career?

NVO: In my early twenties, I was recruited to be a co-founder of a public charter school in Los Angeles and to create their early childhood programs. Looking only at my resume, I was woefully unqualified, but the CEO of the school saw potential in me and took a chance. She has been one of my greatest mentors and that work afforded me opportunities to advance my career. That push into a new level of my career also meant that I was typically the youngest person in the room and the least experienced voice. It took time for me to believe in myself and understand that I deserved to be at the table as much as anyone else and understand that as a woman of color, my experiences are unique and need to be heard.

JA: What role do you see Latinx, Hispanic leaders playing in the future of the education industry?

NVO: We need more Latinx leadership in the field of education because the barriers for academic success for Latinx students are so severe. Latinx students underperform and are at higher risk of dropping out of school than their non-Latinx peers. We need educators and advocates who understand the experiences of our Latinx youth. There are many misconceptions and disconnects regarding culturally competent educators and school personnel, lack of bilingual programming, and lack of understanding of the unique and special dynamics of Latinx families. When Latinx leaders can bring their experiences, their successes and challenges to help develop new ways of working and creating new systems for change, we will see better outcomes, like higher graduation rates, for our Latinx youth.

Dare to Dream 2020 Behind-The-Scenes

Dare to Dream 2020 featured a number of firsts for JA of Washington but most important of all, it demonstrated the dedication of our JA supporter family across the state. Despite the fact that we couldn’t gather in person, over 450 people registered and tuned in on the night of Saturday, September 26, 2020 for our virtual extravanganza.

Normally, it would be difficult to have JA supporters from Eastern Washington joined us for this event. We were thrilled that by going virtual, we could. And we saw so many people from across the state – and even some out of state! – tune in and support JA. With our generous sponsor support, a live and silent auction, and a “raise the paddle” portion we called “Fund a Future,” we exceeded our goal and raised $422,500!

The JAWA Events Team with Dare to Dream emcee Alyana Gomez.

So what went on behind the scenes? So much! First, we had the fortune to contract with PNTA/Seattle Lives, a virtual event services company. One of the first projects we worked on with them was filming the JA videos that we aired during Dare to Dream. It was a great day at our JA Education Center in Auburn as a small group of us gathered to shoot the videos including the film crew, Natalie Vega O’Neil (CEO/President of JAWA), Lisa Stirgus (Board Chair of JAWA), corporate sponsors, students, and more! Safety measures were high priority that day and everyone was masked and kept 6 feet apart as much as possible. The videos turned out wonderfully thanks in large part to PNTA and our willing JA supporters.

JAWA CEO & President Natalie Vega O’Neil being filmed.
JA student being filmed in JA BizTown.

Two days later, the film crew along with JA’s Director of Events Hilary Bhagat drove out to Spokane to film the feature Dare to Dream video. Aided by our colleague Janet Banaugh (Regional Program Director), we filmed in beautiful Manito Park and captured JA alumni Ducati Sanchidrian’s impressive and moving story.

JA alumni Ducati Sanchidrian being filmed.

Finding items to fill our live and virtual auction this year was also an interesting challenge! With travel so curtailed by the pandemic, not to mention dining out and any crowd-related activity, we had to really depend on JA staff and supporters to help source items. And they really came through! If you participated in the Dare to Dream auction, I’m sure you saw how many wonderful goodies we ended up listing: from wine packages to portrait photography services, to vacation getaways with long expiration dates. We were able to provide a great assortment of items for people to bid on.

Finally, the event itself was such a new experience for us all! Typically, we hold Dare to Dream on the T-Mobile Park field, but of course this year, it all had to be filmed and broadcasted live. A small group of JA staff were at the PNTA studios and it was very exciting and different! We also had auctioneer John Curley and our evening’s emcee Alyana Gomez from Q13 Fox, as well as celebrity bartender Abigail Gullo from Ben Paris Restaurant with us and we couldn’t have had three more professional, delightful people working with us on this event.

Auctioneer John Curley pointing out our amazing auction wine packages!

For more photos of the event day as well as a recording the hour-long show, visit our event page. We’re already looking ahead to next year’s Dare to Dream and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we’ll all be able to meet in person then! And of course, a deep heartfelt thank you to everyone for joining us for this unique event. We feel so honored that the support for JA shines through so powerfully especially in these critical times.