Julie Atkins

Because she hated high school and wanted to get out two hours early, Julie Atkins signed up for an Industrial Cooperative Training (ICT) class.

“I was a kid who was from a broken home,” she says. “I was trying, I guess, to find myself, so I got into this ICT class and had a job working at a restaurant. I went through the year … and toward the end joined VICA [now SkillsUSA].”

Atkins attended William Fleming High School and Lawson Vocational Center in Roanoke, Va. She remembers sitting in class one day, talking too much, when her teacher called her into the hallway. She thought she was in trouble, but he encouraged her to run for VICA state office.

“And I went, ‘What? Why me?’ He said, ‘Why not you?’ I was like, ‘Because I don’t think I can do it.’ And he said, ‘I think you can.’ ”

Turns out, she could. Atkins was elected the 1987-88 Virginia vice president. The same year, her school’s chapter won the state Outstanding Chapter contest, and she and her team went on to nationals.

At that time, Tim Lawrence was transitioning into the position of Virginia state association director. Atkins says she learned a lot from Lawrence, who’s now SkillsUSA’s executive director.

As a state officer, Atkins competed in Extemporaneous Speaking and Prepared Speech. After graduation, she joined the state alumni association. In 1989, she earned the top Professional Development Program award, the International Degree.

Atkins and her husband now own three casual dining restaurants, which are sports-themed. She’s the leadership chair for SkillsUSA Virginia and technical committee chair for the national Prepared Speech competition.

She volunteers for SkillsUSA “because I do not believe I would be anywhere without it, because my teacher took that kid who had no confidence and made me into what I am — and it was my teacher who did that, my advisor,” she explains.

“SkillsUSA has helped me mostly in leadership abilities. The restaurant business is primarily a male-dominated business. As a female, I had to stand out from the men. I did that by working harder, being on time, being a team player, listening and doing what I was told the first time. I took pride in any task I was given and did not complain.

“I was able to have confidence, and my employers found I was trustworthy and dependable.” Atkins adds. “I learned that I could talk to my fellow employees as well as owners of my company. Others were afraid to introduce themselves; I was not.

“Communication skills were the most important thing I learned. Still today, I use those skills when meeting with people we do business with. Whether I am meeting vendors, customers or bankers, being able to communicate effectively is extremely important.”