Why I Give Back: Lessons For Budding Business Leaders


Wouldn’t it be great if….? That’s the phrase Rob Bermke uses with high school students to generate blue sky thinking at the Wisconsin Business World Summer Program. It’s a camp that teaches future leaders the fundamentals of running a business in a free market system. Rob, a senior environmental engineer at GP, mentors students at this four-day summer program held at St. Norbert College. He was once a participant in the program in high school, and for the last nine years he’s been giving back as an advisor. Hear Rob’s take on why everyone can learn something about business, no matter what their career path may be.

Why is Wisconsin Business World important to you?

Wisconsin Business World is a program of the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Foundation. It’s important because it provides high school students a glimpse of what free enterprise looks like and gives them the opportunity to meet and work with other high schoolers and advisors in a college setting to advance the goals of their assigned business team. It helps prepare the kids for what may lie ahead of them. For example, this year’s program added elements of financial literacy, business ethics and career planning. It’s great that GP is also a sponsor of the program.

Why do you volunteer and what’s your role?

As a high school student, I participated in one of the first Wisconsin Business World camps right around 1984, and I really enjoyed the experience. About 9 years ago I was looking for a volunteer activity to help youth and I reflected back to what I enjoyed the most when I was in high school. So, I reconnected with this program, and have been an advisor ever since. My role as an advisor is to take about 10 kids who don’t know each other and have been pre-assigned as a “company” and help them work through the week solving various business issues while competing with other companies made up of other high school students. There might be 10 companies at any given session.

Why is it important to teach high school students about business fundamentals?

One of the things I stress is that everyone will ultimately be involved somehow in some business – and in that context there will be competition. Ideally that competition is fair but people have to be able to adjust even when it is not. That is true whether you are an accountant, a politician, an artist, a regulatory specialist, a welder, or a truck driver. Business World simulates real life events over a span of four days and, by the time camp is done, there is a marked difference in many of the campers. First of all, many of them develop a better sense of confidence, especially in giving presentations. Second, they develop a much better understanding of this idea of competition and why preparation is important to be successful in whatever they do.

Are there any perspectives from your role GP that have been helpful in your mentoring?

Yes! First of all, the Market Based Management® Guiding Principles that lead us at GP always come with me when I go to camp and advise. By that I mean in my head, in my heart, and on paper. When I get into a situation that requires me to advise on a specific issue, I reflect on these as a matter of course, for example – integrity, value creation, and humility. The other thing is pointing out how my role as an Environmental Engineer focusing on regulatory compliance is important for GP. While I don’t make any paper with my own hands, my role in ensuring compliance excellence is very much part of the business world and, if done well, can offer GP a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Do you have a favorite anecdote during your time mentoring students?

There have been lots of great memories, lots of great kids, and a world-class group of volunteer advisors who make every experience very special to me. One interesting moment was the mock product my group developed one year. Part of the experience is that each company needs to develop a prototype (but non-working) product out of “junk,” market it, and make a commercial for it in the camp. Probably the most innovative product my group invented was a device that could be placed in your home swimming pool to make it into a wave pool. The mock-up was great and the kids really did their research; it was very novel at the time. Several years later I was told someone actually developed a commercial version of something similar.