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Area students becoming entrepreneurs of their lives

SOUTH BEND -- A year ago, Zachary Biggs had aspirations of going to medical school and becoming a sports medicine physician.

But now, the Penn High School senior envisions becoming an entrepreneur. And, in the literal sense, he already is one.

Zachary and Christian Smith, a John Glenn High School student, started their own business.

They designed a line of prefolded men's handkerchiefs called Pocket Buds. They recently delivered their first retail order to a local tux shop.

Zachary and Christian's idea was spawned when they first met this summer in a program called St. Joe CEO.

In its first year, St. Joe CEO was started by Larry Garatoni, a businessman and founder of the charter schools South Bend Career Academy and Success Academy.

The program enrolls 23 students from seven area high schools.

St. Joe CEO is one of about a dozen such programs in the country and is based on a "Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities" model of The Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship.

Free for students and their schools, St. Joe CEO costs about $70,000 per year to run and is financed through donations from local businesses.

Businesses and organizations are the classrooms. And their leaders are the teachers.

Students, who are chosen by a blind application process, earn both high school and college credit through Ivy Tech Community College. They meet up daily from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. Most recently, they've been gathering at the St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce.

Iris Hammel is the program's director.

Not every student in St. Joe CEO, she said, will go on to become an entrepreneur.

And, that's OK.

"If we peel back what entrepreneurship means," she said, "it's to create, to make. It's teaching young people about change, how they can be the entrepreneurs of their own lives."

Students do one project during each of two semesters in the program.

This semester, they're working together to present an Ignite Michiana-style event that will highlight the talent of local youth.

Scheduled for Feb. 25 in an airline hangar at South Bend International Airport, the event will bring together 18 students who will share their passions, talents, experiences and perspectives.

St. Joe CEO students came up with the idea and are overseeing it.

Kevin Torres, a Marian High School senior, is part of the "sponsorship" team.

"We've created a model, have our pitch ready," he said. "By the end of this week, we're hoping to contact companies and businesses to help out."

Next semester, Hammel said, students will create their own businesses that they'll pitch -- "Shark Tank" style -- to a group of real-life investors.

Catherine Edmonds, a senior from St. Joseph's High School, said she planned to study nursing. But, being in the St. Joe CEO program changed that.

"I'm going into entrepreneurship," she said.

She entered the program because she thought it would be something different, exciting.

Now, she said, "it's the reason I wake up every day."

Magdalena Hernandez, a Marian student, comes from a family of entrepreneurs.

"I've always liked the idea of being my own boss," she said. Through the CEO program, and the business leaders who've spoken to students, she's learned about networking and etiquette and marketing.

"I want to continue," she said of her family's entrepreneurship. "It's just a dream."

When Zachary's mom, Tracy Biggs, first heard about St. Joe CEO, she said she thought it sounded like a good opportunity for him to learn basic business concepts and expand his network while also earning college credit.

But for Zachary, it's been much more.

He's learning life skills, his mom said, how to work in a team, lead a project and become an active member of the community.

"Little did we know," she said, "it would be life-changing for him."

Source: Kim Kilbride South Bend Tribune

For more information, check out stjoeceo.org.

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