JA comes full circle, empowering one family’s future

Cassandra Ilich of Colorado Federal Savings Bank has been a JA volunteer since 2014. In just a years’ time, Cassandra has impacted over 250 students and become a JA Apple Society Member by teaching JA programs such as JA Finance Park, JA Career Success and the JA Company Program.

This past summer, Cassandra brought her mother, Heidi Ilich along for her last visit teaching the JA Company Program to girls at the Betty K. Marler Youth Services Center, a residential treatment program for young women. Cassandra told JA staff that she asked her mother, who was visiting from California, to attend because she was also once a JA kid in the JA Company Program herself, and could share with these girls how JA had literally changed the course of her future.

Of course, we had to dig: What was it like to be a JA student in the 1970s? How had JA impacted her future? We asked Heidi to tell us her JA story, and why JA mattered to her. What did we find? Equal parts of a love story, personal empowerment, and business success. We think you’ll enjoy hearing, in their own words, how JA impacted Heidi and Randy Ilich all those years ago, and paved the way for their daughter to continue making a difference in the lives of local students:

The sophomore through senior classes walked into the assembly to hear about something called Junior Achievement. They said it was an after school program for kids who will create a company, make and market a product and even get paid as employees. I was not making much money babysitting on weekends and it sounded interesting, so I signed up to check it out.

Our corporate company sponsor was Lockheed Martin and our advisor was a geekie guy, but nice enough so I decided to stay and committed myself to helping where I could. Our product was a combination steak knife holder and cutting board. Our group worked well together and I must say it was fun. After several weeks, the products and sales were growing—our company was a success!

I was delegated to attend a meeting called the Achievers Association. Every other Junior Achievement company in the Santa Clara County had student representatives attend this monthly meeting. The moment my girlfriend and I sat down, I knew my life had changed. Students were running every aspect of the meeting without adults telling them what to do. It was the very first time ever that I felt comfortable around kids my age. Junior Achievement changed that for me, this is a group I wanted to belong to.

Sitting in the audience, it was very difficult not to notice the very handsome young man who was running the meeting. The Achiever’s Association president, Randy Ilich. Later, we both attended the Junior Achievement Management Conference on the campus of UCLA in Southern California…Randy was campaigning for President of the National Achiever Association. On our last night, there was a dance and Randy asked me to save the last few for him. Several months later, we were off to Bloomington, Indiana the site of NAJAC—the National Association Junior Achievement Conference. Randy was running for President of NAJAC and he was honored to have the experience to represent the Western states.

Randy’s family emigrated from Serbia and his father was a Serbian Orthodox priest serving in Saratoga, California. His father passed when he was only 13 and his brother 16. The family was reeling from shock and near financial ruin, with his mom trying her best to keep things running. Baba, (who did not speak English) was living with them and his brother dropped out of high school and into a very deep depression. Sports were a release for Randy and as he grew, scouts came to watch him play baseball. The San Francisco Giant’s farm offered him a contract, but by then Randy was also involved in Junior Achievement. He realized that it was more prudent to take control of his family and their business, rather than follow the sports dream. JA showed him it was possible.

My senior year and I had to decide what I was going to do with myself. I knew that my parents could ill afford college tuition, and besides, I had no clue as to what I really wanted to be. In the mean time, Randy had befriended a woman who owned a travel agency that was being sold. We decided to jump in and go for it!

Our travel agency was called Sullivan’s Travels. Randy and I worked together for a few months, along with our 7 employees, but then it became apparent that someone needed to make some real money. He went to work as a telemarketer selling loans for a bank. I was only 17 and not legally able to sign contracts when we first started. We had to hire someone to approve my weekly report to the airlines. It was a very difficult time, but we were determined to make it work. Meanwhile, Randy worked his way up in the bank to loan agent and was out in the field. He talked to his customers about our business, and sent customers our way. I did my best to educate myself in the industry and finding niche markets.

Randy and I married when I was 22, and our business was thriving. Several airlines including Pan American and Lufthansa gave us awards for our sales to the European markets. We were also honored to become citizens of Disneyland due to the amount of business we sent their way.

Many years have gone by since those days. Randy became the President, CEO of Colorado Federal Savings Bank. He steered the bank from $30 million in assets to over $2 billion and most recently was promoted to Vice Chairman.

In our kitchen, I use almost daily the wooden cutting board and trivet that was made in Junior Achievement so many years ago. It makes me smile to think how far we have come.

Junior Achievement has given us the tools necessary to become who we are. We are so grateful for all the opportunities.

Heidi and Randy Ilich
Junior Achievement classes of 1978-1982