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Initiative of business; Entrepreneurial program to start at Austin, Pacelli schools this fall

A new school-business partnership program that gives students real-life experiences in the business world will begin this fall for students in Austin and Pacelli schools.

Called “Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities,” or CEO, the program brings together high school students with local business people who provide students with insight, support and financing for the program.

On Thursday, local students got to hear first-hand accounts from seven students who are part of the Kandiyohi CEO, a combination of Willmar, New London-Spicer and Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City school districts, and their facialitator, Tyler Gehrking. Austin business people and educators have been studying the Kandiyohi program in preparation for forming the local program.

Also on hand were members of the Mower County CEO Board of Directors who will help oversee the program with facilitator, Emily Hovland, a language arts instructor at Austin High School.

Tim Fritz, a vice president at Hormel Foods Corp., said he and fellow business people were excited about the program, after being alerted to its existence by a former colleague who had seen it in operation in another city.

“I’ve never heard him so excited about anything,” he said.

When Fritz studied the program, he liked the idea of students gaining real experience and facing the challenges of owning a business.

“At the end of the day, they’re learning how to solve real problems … and we get the satisfaction of learning what’s going on with our students in Austin – and maybe they’ll come back to Austin” to establish their own businesses after college.

Austin High School Principal Andrea Malo said she was impressed by the program and the support from the business community. She said her first visit to Kandiyohi CEO found her sold almost immediately.

There are 39 local investors, Fritz said, who have already committed to support the students and program. Each business also commits to $1,000 a year that helps, in part, to pay the cost of the facilitator and other program costs.

Gehrking said the program provides a real look into the world of business. Students, who spend a year in the program, meet early in the morning at different business host locations. Half of their grade is based on attendance — so important in the world of business — and 35 percent comes from their own personal journals, that reflect what has been learned. Fifteen percent is based on personal growth that Gehrking witnesses in the students.

The early part of the year is spent talking to business owners, visiting businesses, working in the large group to form a business and business plan, and learning the mechanics of operating a business; in the second half, students form their own businesses.

While the business may not succeed, “it’s the best place and the best time to fail,” said Kylie Halvorson, a student from Willmar. “It’s the safest environment in which to make these kinds of mistakes.”

Halvorson’s business is vintage clothing.

Willmar student Cassidy Hanson said when the group works on its business, “everyone has to do the work,” and being absent doesn’t simply mean making up homework.

“If something doesn’t get done — it doesn’t get done,” she said. The reaction from fellow students may not be kind.

Another student, Kaylyn Ziesmer of New London-Spicer, said getting up early to attend the meetings might be hard, “but you have to suck it up.” A fellow student said they set “like 20 alarm clocks, but it’s worth it.”

Thor Figenskau, 16, of Willmar said his business — being a consultant in social media for the millennial age — will also give him a line on a resume most will never have.

“Having a business before you even get to college – no one has that,” he said.

The response from the local students was almost immediate. While many might show interest, Fritz said, it doesn’t mean all will be accepted. There are only 22 spots available for juniors or seniors, and the application process is more than “just signing up for a class.” Students have to write a narrative about why they want to be a part, as well as tell about themselves.

Austin High School sophomore Mason Silbaugh, 16, said he was attracted by “the real-life experience” that will come with the program — something better, he said, “than just sitting in a classroom.” He would like to conduct some type of business in agriculture.

Kayla Christopherson, 16, a junior at Pacelli, said she has “a strong passion for sports,” and could see herself operating some type of sports-related business.

“I see it as an opportunity to grow,” she said. “I think it would look good on a resume, and I think it would help with college in the future.”

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