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Business students take leap into 'Shark Tank'

Before signing up for the Sangamon CEO program, Sacred Heart-Griffin senior Jack Cullen wasn’t sure if he wanted to take the business route after high school.

After just one semester in the yearlong program, Cullen is now convinced he would like to pursue a career in the business field and plans on making business his minor when he attends American University in Washington, D.C.

“I’m a big team project type of person. I love working with other people. When we all get together and push our ideas, great things happen,” Cullen said.

The Sangamon CEO program is open to high school seniors in and around Sangamon County and is now in its third year. It emphasizes real-world learning and gives students the opportunity to meet with business owners across the county.

The 31 students in this year’s program took center stage Saturday as they pitched business ideas to local investors. The event, which was modeled off ABC’s "Shark Tank," was held at the Memorial Center for Learning and Innovation, 228 W. Miller St.

For the past semester, the students have been working in teams of four to five to develop their business ideas. Cullen’s group came up “Hollidecor,” a company that sells Christmas decorations from a catalog and then goes to clients’ houses to set up the decorations.

“We come to your house, we get on the ladder and do the lights,” Cullen said.

The theoretical company also would come back after the holidays and take the lights down.

Paige Plummer, a senior at Rochester, is on a team that is promoting a task management app. People would put in their to-do list, and the app would alert them to take care of certain errands when they are within range of the task.

Like Cullen, Plummer said she’s enjoyed the Sangamon CEO program, including the time they’ve spent with local business owners.

“I’ve learned a lot about how to network, how to write business plans and how to give proper pitches. I’ve also learned that you should never own a business without being passionate about your business,” Plummer said.

Unlike contestants on the ABC reality show, there was no real money on the line Saturday. Three of the seven teams went onto the final round, and the winning group walked away with bragging rights.

Results weren’t immediately available.

John B. Farrell, CEO of Illinois Ventures for Community Action, 3435 Liberty Drive, was one of the judges in the preliminary round. As part of his job with Illinois Ventures, he hears pitches from companies wanting venture capital dollars.

He’s worked with students in the CEO program in the past and has been impressed with their abilities.

“The quality these young people have and show is the same quality I look for when I’m working with entrepreneurs all over the state, and that’s enthusiasm,” Farrell said. “…They are enthusiastic about what they do, they love it and negativity doesn’t seem to get through to them. That’s good.”

The CEO in the Sangamon CEO program stands for “Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities. It’s an accredited high school class.

Farrell agreed that the Sangamon CEO program sounded like a college-level course. He added that the students in the program should be well-prepared when they get to college.

“They are going to get a leg up on everyone else. They are going to learn a lot before they ever get to college. Some of them might be running their own businesses before they are out of college,” Farrell said.

The students in this year’s program are from nine high schools in and around Sangamon County: Auburn, Edinburg, Lanphier, Pleasant Plains, Rochester, Sacred Heart-Griffin, Southeast, Springfield and Tri-City.

–- Contact John Reynolds: john.reynolds@sj-r.com, twitter.com/JohnReynoldsSJR.

Source: The State Journal-Register 

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