CTSO to CEO: How DECA Helped Me Change the World (And Myself)

Hello reader,

As I write this to you, I’m waiting for a plane to Istanbul, Turkey. Next week I’ll be flying into Belgrade, Serbia and then on to Sarajevo, Bosnia. Last week I was in Orlando chilling with Harry Potter and “The Mouse”. This time last month I was in Atlanta and San Diego. This time last year I was in North Korea with an entrepreneurship group (yes, the one you see on the news so much).

Water Sliding in North Korea. Good times.

Get the picture? I travel a good bit. It’s the stuff my life is made of, my passion, my purpose, and the driving force behind my student travel company EXP Trips.

PS you should also know that I’m terrified of flying…I know, I know…my life makes complete sense.

So, what led me to this jet-setting lifestyle fit only for a crazed entrepreneur hell-bent on changing the world?

Would you believe me if I said it was CTSOs?

Probably not. It’s cool. If you would have told the shy, lost, and awkward 17 year old version of myself that very same thing, I probably would have chuckled a bit and said you’re out of your mind. I wasn’t “destined” for greatness. I wasn’t some brilliant child savant that was pegged as a blue-chip gazillionaire. Hell, I couldn’t even complete a full sentence if a girl was within a 5 mile radius of me, and took 3 tries to pass college algebra (math hurts).

Now we’re winning awards, changing a whole industry, and seeing our business valuation skyrocket. So what changed?
My excited face is ugly. What can I say?

Enter DECA. Well, first…enter a friend of mine who liked cookies.

“Jake, you should totally take Marketing with me this year. We sit around and bake (and eat) cookies all day and get to travel to conferences and stuff!”

Meh, why not.

And so, I unwittingly walked into the DECA room that would forever change my life, which just happened to have the scent of gooey hot globs of cookie dough filling the air. I can live with this.

I went to my usual seat in the back corner of the classroom and put my head down. I was ready for another semester of silence. I wouldn’t dare raise my hand, even if I had something great to contribute. I wouldn’t volunteer for leadership positions, who would listen to a slouch like me?


The bellowing southern voice of Mrs. Chaboya cracked through the silence.

“Are you talking to me?” I sincerely asked, looking around the room.

From that point on, I was Red (I do indeed have red hair). Mrs. Chaboya had zeroed in on her project for the semester: Make me better.

Proof of my red-headedness. That blue jumper tho! Right?!

What happened over the next year was a total, utter, and sudden transformation from a shy lost kid to a 17 year old speaking proudly in front of hundreds of politicians.

It’s all a bit of a blur to be honest.

I was being baptized into this new world of poised and confident professionals with insane drive and ambition.

I became an Arizona DECA State Officer. If Mrs. Chaboya and that Intro to Marketing class were the spark, my time as a State Officer would be the gasoline poured over the fire.

Me and my State Action team! :)
I could speak publicly, negotiate artfully, lead with passion, envision my future, and role play like nobody’s business (shout out to all my competition winners). I was alive.

Maybe there was something in those cookies that they weren’t telling us, or maybe the whole concept of Career and Technical Student Organizations is one that lends itself to massive transformations and growth in practical life and career skills. Trust me, it’s the latter.

CTSOs expose students to a world that most people don’t get a glimpse of until they are a deer in the headlights of “real life” after college.

To learn the soft and hard skills associated with each of these organizations is a gift that will continue to give well into the student’s career.

My hope, is that those CTSO students continue giving that gift back to others. I’ll fast forward a bit, to the part where it all came full-circle.

College me thought he was a hot shot. Too much success too quick, and suddenly we have a real block head on our hands. Seriously, I’m not joking. I thought I had all the answers and was set on world domination to show all of those bullies throughout my life just how wrong they were. Talk about a used up, tired, banal, and boring plot line. How many times have you heard that story?

Enter the block head. The one on the right. The dude on the left is my best friend, and a gem of a human.

I’m here to tell you that anger as motivation only gets you a couple levels into the realm you want to go. Real, next-level, GOAT success only comes when you solve for the following:

(Passion + Purpose (perseverance) + Personality) (Business Savvy) = Success

Is that even a functional equation? No one said I was good at math, but you get the point, right?

Real success takes so much grueling work, heartache, and dexterity, that there is simply no way anger can be fuel enough to see you through.

It takes a passion that you can’t help but smile when you think about, a cause that you’d devote your whole life to, and a personality that is uniquely yours to separate you from all of the “noise” in our world.

I was fortunate that my equation just happened to lead me right back to where it all began, CTSOs. Two weeks into a comfy corporate gig I said no más. I walked out without a clue what I was going to do. Jump off the cliff without a parachute and…well, actually don’t do that. I had a parachute, and that parachute was woven with the skills I learned in DECA.

I stayed more involved than most alumni throughout college. I volunteered at conferences, spoke at conventions, worked with the State Officers, and helped with event logistics. So I decided to start doing leadership workshops and speaking, for CTSOs.

Making a fool of myself for a living. It was a fun time.
Little did I know my big “aha” moment was about to smack me upside the head.

A teacher I was close with was telling me about how she wanted to do a New York trip, but it sold out. Having never been to New York (except for a few hours as a child), next thing I knew I had 100 high school kids following me through the city on a 5 day education tour. It’s still miraculous to me that that first trip went so well, but it did, and it was all downhill (and kinda uphill) from there.

I realized two major things:

  1. Wow! My teachers in school had to do a ton of extra work to allow me the opportunity to travel like I did.
  2. I was really lucky to be an Air Force brat growing up, and had the chance to travel the world. Most kids don’t get that chance. That sucks.

My passion was travel. My purpose was inspiring more kids to get out there and see the big world we live in, and to help their teachers give them that chance.

And in that moment, EXP Trips was born.

3 years and thousands upon thousands of students later, I can truly say that 1.) EXP changes teachers’ and students’ lives for the better, 2.) EXP has a unique personality and is loved (and differentiated) as a brand because of it, 3.) I owe most of it to my time in a CTSO.

That’s right, real recognize real. I still give the cred to that day I was first called “Red”. Without having stepped into that DECA classroom, I would never have been launched on this crazy, weird, awesome life path that I’m on now.

Was it hard? Gah. I can’t begin to tell you how much so. It was/is filled with heartaches that beat me down to my knees, long nights where I begged for someone to just end it all, and days so grim and foggy that there was no path in sight.

It’s always a long and lonely grind, but it’s beautiful in it’s own wicked kinda way.

Is it worth it? Yes. Every time I think I’m going to give up, I fall back on my passion and my purpose. I go to a rural school and speak with kids that everyone else writes off, and I see how travel can transform their lives. I speak with teachers who thank us from the bottom of their heart for all that we do for them. I watch videos of our trips and focus on how happy everyone seems.

I look in the mirror, and see just how far that shy, lost, and awkward 17 year old has come. It’s been a blessing to make it this far, and I can’t wait to see just how far we will go.

Without CTSOs, I wouldn’t have got to where I am, nor would I be able to get to where I’m going.

So thank you, to every advisor, member, director, and otherwise, that allowed me to be where and who I am today.

And to you, reader, whether you’re sitting in the same seat in a high school as I was, are a professional looking to help kids, or an alumni who lost touch, please get involved.

Whether you are DECA, FBLA, HOSA, FFA, FCCLA, Skills USA, BPA, or otherwise…we are one big CTSO family, and together we can and are changing lives.
The journey continues. The path is long, but I know my CTSO family and know-how will see me through.

Teachers: Want a travel partner that’s committed to making your life easier and advocating for CTE? Check out www.exptrips.com.

Alumni: Want to join our Team of Teams and help change lives through travel? Check out www.exptrips.com/trip-rep.

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