Samohi's DECA chapter recently attended a districtwide conference in Anaheim where they competed against 450 students from across Southern California and secured a number of first- and second-place trophies.

With an intent to prepare students for the world of business that awaits them after graduation, Santa Monica High School’s Distributive Education Clubs of America, or DECA, chapter first began gathering on campus around 2001.

Today, nearly 20 years later, the program is still looking to prepare Santa Monica’s future leaders and entrepreneurs in the fields of finance, marketing and hospitality management. And it’s pretty successful, according to a group of Samohi students who recently placed as high as first in a districtwide conference that occurred in Anaheim earlier this month.

Many members said in a group interview this week they participate in the program because they have an eye towards the future.

Some hope to go into the world of public relations, so the program’s focus on marketing offers them a chance to gauge if they’ll enjoy the rigors of press releases and campaigns. Other participants, like Clyde Applegate, hope to continue a 92-year-old family-owned automotive business, “and I’ve never really had a way to use my knowledge about cars in a constructive way so this is a really cool experience, and I think I’m going to stick with it,” Applegate said.

There are many different roles and ways to get involved, co-president Mason Hackmann added, mentioning there are more than 250 million participants worldwide.

“It’s kind of like a class and a club,” Hackmann said, detailing how students gain real-world skills since they are directly responsible for managing the program’s budget, finding the accommodations and many other tasks.

“The goal of DECA is to integrate academic business learning to applied situations, so, after school we go over different principles of economics like supply demand and marketing terms. And then we will also study and hold practice sessions for the competitions,” co-president Duke O’Callahan said.

At competitions like the group’s most recent one — where Hackman took home a first place prize and Applegate, O’Callahan and Josh Cohen all took home second-place prizes — participating members are given an exam and a possible workplace problem that could arise on an average day. Members are to present how they would go about solving the problem to a panel comprised of real-world business owners and professionals.

Students said the skills they take away are able to be used in future college courses and beyond, which is why they are all so willing to spend many hours a week learning long after the school day has come to an end.

“Last year, we had an outreach event on-campus where Santa Monica DECA alum spoke to students about their experience in college and I thought it was interesting to hear how they were all able to develop a certain business acumen but none of them studied business in college,” Hackmann said. “One of them was almost done with med school and said he intends to open up a private practice and DECA gave him the confidence to do so.”

O’Callahan added the chapter hopes to soon create a network of mentors that could help students navigate life after high-school as well as provide new opportunities.

“But it’s becoming really difficult getting people to donate their time,” DECA Advisor Anita Kemp said as she described how some competitions span across multiple days.

However, the retired teacher still continues to volunteer her free time and she hopes others in the community will do the same.

“We’re always looking for judges, presenters or anybody who would be willing to give any time to these students,” Kemp said, sharing that she can be reached at “Even if they come in and simply share their experiences on the job for a half-hour, we would be grateful.”

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