MIA ROSA Spotlight On
CEO / International Trade Education Programs
Amy Grat is on a mission. As CEO for the fast-growing non-profit International Trade Education Programs (ITEP), Amy seeks to match local students with industry as a way to promote an atmosphere conducive to better jobs and a career path after they leave school.
As a leader in her field who is passionate about her work and her life, Amy fits the description of a MIA ROSA woman to a tee. We caught up with her (not an easy assignment!) just before the last long holiday weekend of the summer. For her and the many students she seeks to help, Amy’s work is just beginning.
- What exactly is the mission of ITEP and how did it come to be formed?
International Trade Education Programs (ITEP) was founded in 1999 by a passionate group of volunteers in the Port of Los Angeles, who wanted to create a bridge between the growing maritime trade industry that needed a skilled workforce and a local high school that was struggling to graduate its students. The result was the creation of the International Trade Academy (ITA) at Phineas Banning High School, a small learning community that combined international trade-related curriculum with a robust program of hands-on experiential learning opportunities that motivated students and prepared them for college and careers.
ITEP brings confidence, choice, and opportunity to students seeking brighter futures. Through partnerships with industry, we prepare high school students for diverse career opportunities in high-growth job sectors.
- How has ITEP grown since it began?
Sixteen years later, ITEP has evolved into a regional career-focused youth development organization supporting 5,100 students at underperforming public high schools in low-income Southern California communities within the cities of Los Angeles, Carson, Downey, Gardena, Wilmington, Barstow and Harbor City.
Although our roots are in maritime trade, transportation and logistics, our industry support has branched out to include supply chain management, finance, and entrepreneurship, as well as careers in engineering, advanced manufacturing and environmental science.
The mission of connecting students to great careers right in their back yards has not changed. Our students in East LA get plugged into the growing clean tech industry taking over the gritty industrial zones in downtown LA. Our South Bay students are introduced to aerospace and aviation related careers.
- Who are the best candidates to benefit from ITEP and why?
ITEP partners with schools and employers who see the value in creating a bridge between school and career. We provide critical support for teachers and administrators as an “extra set of hands” to help them motivate students and bring context to the classroom. Our industry partners see value in ITEP’s ability to bring life to their corporate social responsibility statements and feed their talent pipeline.
From a student’s perspective, the best candidate to benefit from ITEP is one who grabs every opportunity we provide to them – from our GPS Your Future Career Discovery Day for freshmen, to our Industry Mentoring Program for sophomores, our Summer Internship Program for juniors, and our Scholarships for seniors. If a student brings their best effort and attitude, we will go the distance for them.
- With so much attention being focused this year on trade and job creation, how does ITEP play a role?
One of every 8 jobs in Southern California connects back to the Port of Los Angeles and the global supply chain. Los Angeles is the gateway to trade in the U.S., handling over 40 percent of the nation’s cargo. Through our programs, ITEP gives students access to the spectrum of global trade careers in their communities and introduces them to potential economic opportunities that they may not have ever considered.
Many of the students we support have never traveled beyond the 10 square blocks of their neighborhoods. By connecting students to the vast opportunities available in global trade and supply chain careers, we open their eyes to the global economy and expand their career horizons 10,000 miles, reinforcing the concept that where you grow up doesn’t determine the extent of your success.
One such example is Favio Hernandez, a member of ITEP’s very first graduating class in 2002. Although his parents didn’t complete grade school, Favio graduated from USC’s Marshall School of Business, a goal inspired by his ITEP mentor and internship supervisor in the Finance Department at the Port of Los Angeles, whom he says changed the trajectory of his life. Today Favio manages the Latin American Capital Markets desk at a New York investment bank.
- How did you come to find ITEP – or did they find you?
Perhaps we found each other. Back in 2002, when I was working for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC) I had the opportunity to meet and become friends with ITEP’s founder and former Harbor Commissioner Carol Rowen, who served on our Board. Carol was, and still continues to be, a passionate advocate for the harbor community. She often spoke of her “baby,” a small international trade educational program down at the docks that was steering youth away from gangs and helping them explore careers in maritime trade. I thought the idea was interesting, but didn’t think too much about it until I was at an awards luncheon in downtown Los Angeles where the very first graduating class was being honored. When I saw those confident young men and women stand on the stage in front of 800 business and community leaders and heard how this program had helped them overcome the considerable obstacles faced by youth living in socioeconomically challenged communities, I was HOOKED!
I started with ITEP first as a volunteer helping to fundraise and then joined the Board of Directors in 2007. Three years later, while I was working as a fundraiser for USC, I learned that Carol Rowen was planning to retire after 10 years of growing the organization. I saw an opportunity to combine my MBA education, professional fundraising and program management skills with a passion for education and community impact. I had already sipped the ITEP “Kool-Aid” years ago, so I knew this role was meant for me. I feel the same way every day. This is not just a job; it’s my life’s passion.
- Was there anyone you looked up to as a mentor or someone in the public eye who inspired you?
Not to make everything about ITEP, but frankly, when I think about a mentor the person I always think about is Carol Rowen, ITEP’s founder.
Carol’s mentorship was a light touch for several years until I found myself at a crossroads professionally. At the age of 41, I was frustrated with my career and current job. I was considering a number of options, including making a lateral move to another company, going into business with my husband or pursuing an MBA at University of Southern California, which was the long shot of the options. Carol is a “bleeding blue” Bruin, so I know it must have been difficult for her to do so, but she absolutely insisted that I push myself to go back to school.
I took Carol’s advice and joined the USC IBEAR MBA program, which was a transformational experience for me personally and professionally. Carol was there all along the way with support and encouragement. When it came time for her to retire from ITEP, she told me that I was the one she wanted to carry on her legacy. That didn’t keep her from making me go through the six-month long executive search process before finally being offered the position. Carol has always expected me to give 110 percent effort and be held to the highest standard of competition. She has never cut me slack and I have never given her anything but my best.
- From a business perspective, is there one “aha” moment (we call it a “MIA ROSA Moment”) that stands out in your mind? Something that had a long-lasting effect or left an indelible mark?
My MIA ROSA moment happened on July 24, 2015, when I stood in front of over 100 friends, supporters, and staff to proudly cut the ribbon and open ITEP’s new headquarters in Carson, California. After 15 years of working, first out of spare bedrooms and cars, and then in tiny offices with hand-me-down furniture and paper thin walls, ITEP was finally ready to step in to 4,100 square feet of Class A real estate with color coordinated cubicles and a conference room big enough for all of our eighteen staff members to sit down at the same time.
As I cut that ribbon, I was one month away from completing my fifth year as ITEP’s CEO. I originally joined a team of six people. Now, 18 people had ITEP’s logo on their business card. When I first started, the operating budget was $575,000. When we closed our year-end books a month earlier in June, we had surpassed $1M in revenues for the very first time. Our move to Carson was driven by our need to better serve the four new schools we had added to our portfolio in the last year, bringing our programs to total 20 pathways in 13 schools. ITEP was on a roll!
I was proud, humble, grateful, excited, and also a bit nervous. This new office brought with it a larger monthly rent bill, along with the other costs associated with business growth. But that day, accompanied by friends, supporters, and staff, I knew that together we could do anything. We cut the ribbon and toasted our future. A most MIA ROSA moment indeed.
- What advice would you give to any female entrepreneur or business woman as they move through their career?
I was recently asked to be the commencement speaker at Phineas Banning High School, where ITEP got its start 16 years ago. It was a bit intimidating to stand in front of 500 high school seniors, along with several thousand friends and family in the stands, and try to say something memorable. However, I gave it my best.
This is what I told them, slightly abbreviated:
Never pass on an opportunity. If someone invites you attend an event, meet someone new, participate in a project, don’t hang back, even if you aren’t sure you are interested or qualified. Or even worse, because you are afraid of looking stupid. You never know what an opportunity brings, unless you’re there to capture it.
Be grateful for your H.O.F’s (Haters, Obstacles, and Failures). Love your haters – the people who tell you you’re not good enough, that you’re not worthy. They are blessings in disguise because they are going to motivate you to prove them wrong. Embrace those Obstacles. They are the training opportunities to hone your skills, build your perseverance and instill the most valuable of character traits: grit. Fail Fearlessly. Because each failure brings you one step closer to success. Your failures are your greatest teachers.
Think globally: Here in Los Angeles, we have the Pacific Rim right at our doorstep. We live in a city where 224 languages are spoken by people living within 50 miles of us. With 95 percent of the world’s consumers living outside of the U.S., it’s almost inevitable that you’ll be doing some work that involves another country and culture.
Your network is your net worth. In a world increasingly focused on social media, don’t neglect your real-life relationships. Make your in-person self as awesome as your avatar. At least 70 percent of jobs are found through knowing someone. You want to be the one that an employer remembers when he or she has that great opportunity in front of them.
- How do you like to relax when not working (friends? workouts? travel? anything else)?
I’m a workaholic. It’s not easy to pull myself away from ITEP. But, when I do, I try to get far, far away. Actually, some of my most relaxing moments are when I’m boarding an international flight to a different time zone and the flight attendant tells us all to shut off our phones. The destination will surely be fantastic, but those hours when I know NOBODY CAN REACH ME are deliciously decadent.
Each year, I take a long trip with my husband and children. Last year we visited Portugal; previous years it was Spain, Thailand, Vietnam, and China. After enjoying my “no phone” flights, I love exploring new cities, eating new foods, and of course, drinking delicious wines.