Twenty-five years of leadership and learning with JA-Rocky Mountain Executive Vice President, Kristi Shaffer

Kristi Shaffer and Robin Wise

Kristi Shaffer, Junior Achievement-Rocky Mountain, Inc. (JA) Executive Vice President, wakes up every morning at 4. She’s the first to arrive at her workout class, then she walks into the JA office around 6:30 a.m. to beat traffic. The rest of her work day is filled with presentations to businesses, brainstorming sessions, internal meetings and networking with JA supporters, and in the evening, she often attends business receptions and community events too. Then she does it all over again the next day. After 25 years of being JA’s top cheerleader, Kristi still isn’t tired. 

Commitment to the JA mission, an unmatchable work ethic, and the desire to constantly improve are the key qualities that sustain Kristi’s drive.

“People ask me all the time, ‘How can you still be so enthusiastic 25 years later?’ It’s because I just am!” she says. “I believe it down to my toes that JA is so important for individuals, families, businesses, our community, our nation, and our world. I don’t think anything more important than teaching young people how to manage their finances, find work that’s meaningful, and live life with an entrepreneurial spirit.”

After earning her Master’s degree in Public Relations from the University of Oklahoma in 1988, Kristi worked at an insurance company for five years and took a three-month sabbatical to visit her mother, a Peace Corps volunteer in Czech Republic who launched the country’s first JA office.

The Berlin Wall had just fallen, and JA was partnering with the Peace Corps in many former Eastern Bloc countries so they could teach young people about the global market economy and entrepreneurship. Kristi witnessed the students’ transformative experiences and was blown away by JA’s ability to prepare them for economic freedom.

She returned home and immediately applied for jobs at JA offices all over the United States.

JA of Dallas offered Kristi a job as a Program Manager where she launched their elementary school programs. A year later in 1994, she joined JA-Rocky Mountain and worked with elementary, middle and high school programs and quickly climbed to new leadership positions. JA-Rocky Mountain President & CEO Robin Wise promoted Kristi to Northern Colorado District Director where she had her first taste of institutional development.  

“That was really the first time that I had raised any money, run any special events, worked with a board…I mean, it was a big, big leap.  I’m so grateful that Robin gave me the opportunity to do it, because I learned so much. That was really when I began to thrive,” Kristi says.

Though she ultimately found her passion in development and executive leadership, Kristi believes that her early roles at JA were, and still are, crucial to her everyday work.

Kristi says that thanks to her program experience, she can help “individuals, companies and foundations accomplish their philanthropic goals by supporting various JA programs.”

A few years later, Kristi advanced to the Executive Vice President position because of her enthusiasm, teamwork and dedication to growth opportunities.

“It’s about working hard and really holding yourself to the standards we’re trying to teach young people in JA about being professional, setting goals and achieving them, and being a leader internally and externally. I’m never going to be perfect at anything I do. I always ask how I can do better,” she says.

These traits are embodied in her management style as well.

“It’s an expectation within our team that we can always provide more value…and sometimes it might be incremental, sometimes it’s a big leap, but you don’t know if you aren’t asking questions.”

Leadership skills are developed over time and must be based on authenticity, Kristi says. JA staff members can affirm that when it comes to managing a team, she walks the talk. Kristi firmly believes in doing the work that she asks others to do, and continues to manage a list of development accounts instead of delegating those responsibilities to others.

Not only has JA-Rocky Mountain’s impact grown exponentially under Kristi’s leadership, but JA Worldwide has reaped many rewards as well. She secured a partnership with Janus Henderson to reintroduce the JA Titan program through a $1.6 million grant, which also enables students to access the program virtually even if they don’t have JA in their local community. Kristi also brought a significant gift to JA in South America through Western Union, and she shares her expertise with JA USA as a member of the JA USA Development Advisory Group, JA USA Strategic Planning Committee, and as a JA USA Conference Speaker/Facilitator.

Kristi is hesitant to take credit for these accomplishments, though. Instead, she’s grateful just to have the opportunity to connect community stakeholders with a noble cause. She says, “All of these companies really want to make a difference in the places where they work, live and play. Being able to help them achieve their goals has been really powerful for me.”

She adds, “I love getting up and talking to people about JA, whether it’s one-on-one or a huge group…I just feed off of the emotion in the room. When people start nodding their heads about how important this is, I know they agree and want to get involved.  It just motivates me to do more.”

Throughout her 25-year tenure with JA-Rocky Mountain, Kristi has been a part of countless student success stories, but there’s one student whose JA journey sticks with her: Oliver Martinez-Reyes. They met at JA Business Week when Oliver was going to the Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS) and was uncertain about his future and whether or not he wanted to go to college. A few months later, an elementary school around the block from DCIS was in desperate need of bilingual volunteers, so Kristi called on Oliver to help, as he speaks Spanish. He jumped on board and offered to bring in a group of his bilingual peers to volunteer as well.

Now Oliver is pursuing his Master’s degree in Accounting at University of Denver and has carried the same level of enthusiasm for JA, encouraging his classmates to get into JA classrooms.

“For him to not just pay it forward by volunteering to teach younger students and being a tremendous role model, but to also bring his peers with him…I feel like that speaks volumes about his leadership and about who he is, and the successful business man he will become. That makes my heart sing,” Kristi says.

That’s exactly the kind of impact that gets Kristi out of bed every day at 4 a.m.