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Commerce’s high school mentorship program prepares students for successful careers.

For many high school students, particularly those in underserved areas, the notion of having a career in banking can seem out of reach. In many cases, it simply could be that many such students haven’t had any exposure to the banking industry — and as a result, they simply don’t consider it as a viable career option for their future. 

Commerce Bank is hoping to change that. Over the past two years, Commerce has developed and implemented a mentorship program designed to introduce the world of banking to a select group of high school students while also providing the valuable coaching and training that will help them prepare for college and, eventually, the beginning of their banking careers. 

“We started to think about ways we could at least put banking on the radar for students early on,” says Kevin Barth, chairman and CEO of Commerce Bank’s Kansas City region.

“We struck on the idea of working with high school students as a way to show them that there are exciting careers in banking that could be a real option for them.”
With that concept in mind, the team at Commerce began building out the details. “We thought it would be helpful to give students some real-world life experiences and exposure to different aspects of banking so they can understand what it’s all about,” says Shawna Wright, Commerce’s director of talent management. She and Mariah Jordan, a strategic program manager in Commerce’s human resources group, were the main architects of the program. 

“We spent a lot of time thinking through the details and working on the best ways to keep the program alive and healthy for a long time,” Wright says. 

As for a school to team up with, the Commerce team immediately thought of University Academy, a college preparatory public charter school in the Kansas City, Missouri. University Academy places a heavy emphasis on students continuing on to post-secondary education. Commerce has been a supporter of the school for some time, as was Mr. Barth personally. 

While establishing a framework for the program, the Commerce team reached out to University Academy and coordinated with teachers, staff and counselors to ensure the experience would be highly valuable for the students.

The staff at University Academy was excited to be involved. “We’ve been really working on increasing the real-world learning opportunities for our students,” says Matt Gandy, a business teacher at the Academy, who is the student coordinator for the Commerce mentorship program.

“We want to help prepare students for college and for entering the professional workforce after that. This program represented a great opportunity for our students in that regard.”
University Academy leadership was grateful to be working with Commerce on the program. “Commerce is obviously an amazing company — a pillar in the community — and they have a sincere desire to expose students from a wide variety of backgrounds to the potential of careers in banking,” says Sonja Shaffer, the executive director of the University Academy Foundation. “They wanted to get involved for all the right reasons.”

After nearly a year of building out the program, the first four students were finally selected from the Academy’s junior class in September 2021; each was then paired with a mentor from Commerce. The mentors were all younger team members — people early in their careers whom the students could readily connect with. 

“Fortunately, we had a large list of people who volunteered to be mentors,” says Jordan. “Once we identified who our four students would be, we gave a lot of thought to which mentors we wanted to pair them with. We hoped it would be an ideal fit for both people.”

Mentors and students met monthly during the school year and discussed various topics at each meeting. Mentors helped the students with establishing goals, writing their resumes, and preparing for academic endeavors like National Honor Society and DECA (which is a nonprofit that prepares students for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management). 

Once every quarter, the students attended special events at the Commerce corporate offices in Kansas City. During one session, the students learned about Commerce’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts and why these efforts are important to Commerce. In another, they met with a panel of Commerce leaders who shared career pathing advice. The students also participated in financial literacy training. 

“We want the quarterly events to be fun as well as educational, and we wanted to give the students a glimpse of what it’s like to work at a company like Commerce,” says Jordan.

“We introduced them to our culture, our leadership, and the atmosphere here, and they got to experience the kind of professional environment they might end up working in someday.”
A highlight of the program for the students came at the end of the school year when they were invited to a final sendoff before summer with a special luncheon with Barth at an upscale Kansas City restaurant. Prior to the luncheon, students learned about business-meal etiquette, which they would get to practice at the luncheon. 

Since none of the students owned what they felt would be appropriate clothing for the luncheon, the Commerce team took them shopping so they could pick out a nice outfit to wear to the luncheon. “Everyone was dressed up and they were very well equipped with great questions for the Commerce leaders,” Wright says. “You could see how much they had grown over the school year. They were much more confident.” 

Barth was impressed with the students as well. “They asked questions you would normally expect someone more experienced to ask,” he says. “I was impressed by their curiosity about what it takes to be successful in life and in their careers. I loved having those conversations with them, and they were amazed by the experience. Getting to see their eyes light up was great.”

The mentorship program is set up to continue as the students progress in their education. The four students will be paired with the same mentors during the current school year. “The junior year is focused on one-on-one conversations and mentoring meetings,” says Jordan.

“During their senior year, the mentors will take it a step further with college prep, helping the students get ready for the next level of their education. They’ll get some professional development training, learn about behavioral styles and the importance of emotional intelligence. The mentors will also direct the students in a capstone project at Commerce.”
The students will continue to be paired with a mentor during all four years of college as well — the program is designed to help students from junior year in high school until they graduate from college. If their grade point averages meet certain requirements, Commerce will also match the scholarship funding the students would normally receive from University Academy Foundation. 

“I hope the program continues going as well as it did during the first year,” says Gandy. “I think we’re fortunate to be a school that gets to partner with Commerce in this way.”

Ultimately, Commerce is hoping to expand the program to other cities where it operates. They also intend to connect with other prominent companies in Kansas City to encourage them to establish similar mentorship programs. 

“Thanks to Shawna and Mariah and the team at University Academy, this program has gone better than I ever expected,” says Barth. “These students had never had any exposure to banking as a career, and over time, we’ve seen them really grow. They have great energy and enthusiasm, and it’s very fulfilling to see.”

Barth believes the mentorship program is a great example of how Commerce invests in its communities. “We’re only as strong as the communities we serve,” he says. “If we can help some students establish themselves as successful professionals, that would be incredible. Hopefully some of them will find success at Commerce in the future — we’d be lucky to have them.”

Also see:

Commerce Bank’s inclusion and diversity efforts are rooted in our core values.
Five ways we're investing in our community.
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