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JA New York talks with Legacy Achiever Sally Durdan

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JA Alumna Sally Durdan grew up in a small town called Middleport, located midway between Buffalo and Rochester in upstate New York. She attended high school in the nearby town of Lockport. It was in high school that Sally first became involved with Junior Achievement’s flagship program – the JA Company Program.

Following graduation, Sally went on to develop an impressive career history. Currently, she serves as the CFO for the Retail Financial Services Business at JPMorgan Chase. Sally has an undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Sally credits Junior Achievement with laying the foundation for her career and life accomplishments and for helping her to discover and prepare for a life of unlimited potential.

What is your definition of success?

My definition of success is having a job I really enjoy – a job where I can have a real impact – but also being able to balance success at work with my family life.

As a student, did you ever imagine that you would have carved out a successful corporate business career?

As a young student, I read a lot of biographies of women and was very drawn to law and business. Back in 6th grade, I wanted to be a lawyer.I remember when I was in the 8th or 9th grade I saw an ad on TV for Junior Achievement. It seemed so exciting. Connecting with JA really helped me to find my calling. It was through the JA experience that I became more interested in economics and business. By the time I graduated high school, I definitely wanted to go to business school to become a business professional.

Can you share some of the things you learned from your internship experience?

There were a range of things I learned from my internship experiences. There were simple things like learning how to dress appropriately for business, or how to book and get on a plane and travel somewhere by myself. Giving credit where credit is due – I have to say that the first time I did any of these things was with JA to participate in NAJAC (National JA Conference).Another thing I learned was how to stand out in a crowd and how to make myself known. There was one occasion when all the interns at the company were invited to a meeting and reception with the Chairman and the President of the company. I made a decision to wear a red suit. There were very few female interns and nobody but me was wearing red. And guess what? I met the President, I met the Chairman and we had a great conversation. All because I seized the opportunity to make a memorable impression in my red suit! I quickly learned a lot about communication and interpersonal strategy – to my advantage.

What do you remember about your experience as a JA student?

JA made a huge impression on me. I participated in the JA Company Program, which at the time was an afterschool initiative. My JA Company was sponsored by Marine Midland Bank. The local branch manager was our business mentor leader and she was a woman. It was incredibly interesting and inspiring to work with a successful business woman.Back then, you were taught basic business, accounting and financial concepts. I liked the idea of understanding what a break-even is, or understanding the need to cover fixed costs and volume planning etc. It was like being a member of a secret society – we were doing and learning things that most kids our age knew nothing about. It was a very interesting educational experience.

What do you remember about your JA product?

They were always arts and crafty things. One year we made jars with sand – you could make pictures with the colored sand. In another year we made plaques out of cards. I’m pretty sure I still have one of those stored away somewhere. My father owned a furniture store and gift shop. So we had a wholesale arrangement. Having a consignment deal with my dad was very smart and very helpful. (Laughs). The other thing that was great about the JA Company program is that you actually appoint corporate officers for each of the company operational functions. So in my first year of the JA Company Program, I was the VP of Personnel. Within this role, I competed in the national VP of Personnel competition at NAJAC and I was the first runner up.

What were some of your responsibilities as VP of Personnel?

You take care of payroll. We actually paid employees and everything related to making sure people were assigned to jobs. When you participated in NAJAC you were expected to study and have a much broader awareness of personnel as a function than you would actually experience in the JA Company Program. You competed first on a local scale – for us this was within the Buffalo area – and if you won that, you would go to NAJAC and compete at the national level.At the national competition, there were thousands of kids competing against each other in various business categories. It was a combination of written exams, interviews, presentations – the ultimate prize was to be named Company of the Year or Officer of the Year. The public speaking experience and the exposure to business people who were the judges was really amazing. Ultimately it required you to have knowledge about labor relations and personnel policies of various kinds that were above and beyond what you would do in the JA Company Program. It was a wonderful opportunity and a really intense experience. As a result, you became a very polished professional.

How valuable is the JA experience for students?

For me it certainly sparked my interest in finance, economics and business in general. In terms of exploring a career and getting a real flavor of what business is all about, it was very helpful. The company program experience was different than the range of programs JA has today, but the fundamental lessons are the same. It’s a great team-building experience. You have to know how to get along with the team. You learn how to influence others, how to get people to work together to accomplish an objective. And then there are experiences, competitions, public speaking opportunities – all wonderful preparation for any career track.

What do volunteers get out of the association with JA?

Volunteers get a real kick out of watching the students learn and accomplish things. I remember when I came home from NAJAC after I’d almost won the VP of Personnel award. My volunteer sponsor was at the airport with a dozen roses to greet me. It was a very big deal. The volunteers enjoy seeing students grow and they are incredibly supportive and inspirational.

How important is it for successful people like yourself to become engaged in the education of young people?

It’s really important for business professionals to invest in the education of young people. I just think about people who had an influence on me when I was a young person. I didn’t come from a privileged background. I grew up in a really small town. Nobody from my high school went to an Ivy League college. But because I had role models and mentors from Junior Achievement in my life to show me what the range of opportunities open to me could be, it became a logical choice to apply to top colleges. Now, I try to get involved in opportunities where I can pass the torch of inspiration to young people who need it. By sharing my story, by showing young people where I came from, I hope they will understand that no matter where they come from, opportunities are out there if one can commit oneself to trying really hard.