Raunaq Singh is a senior at Hightstown High School in East Windsor, N.J. With hopes of pursuing technology and finance in college, Singh has found ways to explore these fields while still in high school, including a summer research internship with SRI International, as an analyst at the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, and as a campus director at MySocialCloud, a web application that allows people to manage their various online activities, such as passwords and favorite videos.
Even before that, Singh decided that he wanted to nurture his love of business by better understanding the concept of economic development. Then 15, Singh answered an online advertisement to be a student representative on his town’s economic development committee. In this personal essay, Singh, 17, gives his roundtable perspective on developing his community and communication skills.
Life can lead you to the most unpredictable places. This thought flashed through my mind as I sat in front of Mayor Janice S. Mironov and the rest of the East Windsor Economic Development Committee in January 2011, which also happened to be my sophomore year of high school. After doing some research online, I had discovered the economic development committee. It sounded intriguing, and I wanted to better understand this concept of economic development. So I applied – and ended up across the desk from some of my town’s most formidable government and business leaders, interviewing me to find out if I was right for the role.
“Where do you go to school?” asked one business owner.
“Uh…uh, Hightstown High School,” I stammered, tripped up by my nerves on possibly the easiest question.
“What are your primary interests?” asked another board member.
“Definitely business,” I said, rattling off my involvement in the Future Business Leaders of America, Model UN and the debate team.
I became more confident with each question and, soon enough, my interviewers invited me to become the student member of the East Windsor Economic Development Committee. I was honored, and admittedly a little worried. At age 15, I didn’t really understand economic development. Like most people, I had read the Wikipedia definition of the term – and that was the scope of my knowledge.
Maps and Mom-and-Pops
Economic development is the growth of a community so that it may experience a higher standard of living. I still don’t know everything about developing a community, but over the past couple of years, I’ve experienced first-hand what it takes to strengthen the economy and improve the living standard for my town’s residents. I have sat at a roundtable with 13 other board members for a couple of hours each month talking about businesses and brainstorming ways to improve the local economic climate.
Whether it is spreading the word about the town’s mom-and-pop business owners or getting local companies to sponsor (help pay for) the design of a new township map, chances are that a local economic development committee is leading the effort to grow the businesses in your town. The East Windsor Economic Development Committee (EDC) has organized everything from golf outings to countywide economic summits to help bring the business community together and educate residents and businesses about economic challenges and opportunities. Among our most high-profile events is an annual golf outing that involves bankers, lawyers, storeowners and other East Windsor residents who play golf, network with each other and raise money for a charity close to home.
We also developed a map to be sent to every resident in the township, funded by stores who paid to include their information, to increase awareness of local retail. I discussed aspects of the map with my EDC colleagues and helped work out the aesthetics and mechanics of the design so that viewers would be able to gather information effectively.
While East Windsor was not removed from the economic hardships that hit many Americans in the past few years, the residents persevered and along with the EDC pushed initiatives to foster growth. In particular, we launched the “Buy Local” campaign, which encourages East Windsor residents to buy from local retail businesses, rather than big-time chain stores like Target.
Another function of economic development is to encourage the growth of businesses and corporations that contribute to the economic health of the region through the taxes they pay and through employees using local services. Shiseido America, a large Japanese business that makes cosmetics and personal care products for women, expanded its base in East Windsor this July, a major victory from an economic development perspective. The company is setting up a distribution center in East Windsor that will handle the export of U.S.-manufactured Shiseido brand products to Europe and Asia.
Fear of ‘Being Shut Down’
A valuable piece of my EDC experience has been getting to know and work with other committee members. Mike Henderson, chairperson of the committee and research manager at Choose New Jersey, an organization that works to position New Jersey as a leader in the global market, has been one of my mentors. “I joined the EDC because as a member of the community, I wanted to see the township thrive and to help local businesses become stronger,” says Henderson. “It has been a great experience working with the committee, the mayor and the township council to do our small part in making a difference in the local economy.” Other members on the committee include Eric Schubiger, director of community development for East Windsor, and George White, an attorney who practices in the fields of estate and business law.
My time serving on the East Windsor Economic Development Committee has allowed me to participate in a professional open forum where everyone collaborates, disagrees on topics and still manages to agree on solutions – wrangling over everything from critical networking strategies to which caterer to use for the next EDC-sponsored outing. I have learned the value of effective communication and constructive criticism in professional life. If you don’t think something is the best it can be, speak your mind because it will only help move the project forward. I think many teens that enter a new organization — whether it is a job or a high school club — are afraid to speak up to the leaders for fear of being shut down. I’ve learned that my opinion matters and can have a lasting impact on the direction an issue takes.
Life can lead you to the most unpredictable places. That’s what makes it so interesting.