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Rural Illinois High-Schoolers Become Entrepreneurs in CEO Class

Students in Effingham-county’s CEO class aren’t your typical teenagers. Each weekday, often before 7 a.m., local high-schoolers can be found in the region’s fastest-growing companies, meeting with successful entrepreneurs and even starting their own businesses.

Preparing high-school students in rural Illinois to be self-reliant, enterprising and innovative are foundations of the Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities class (CEO), now in its 5th year. The class, open to Effingham county juniors and seniors, thrives on broadband access to connect students with resources from around the world. As an awardee of the Illinois Broadband Innovation Fund, the successful program will be duplicated in other Illinois regions via the Midland Institute for Leadership.

Funded entirely by local investors and led by a veteran, award-winning instructor, the program is offered at no cost to local school districts. Students never meet in traditional classrooms, but alternate between local businesses and tech facilities. Each student is mentored by a business leader and has an opportunity to build a network of new connections throughout the year.

“High-speed internet access is a foundation of this program,” said Craig Lindvahl, instructor and CEO of the Midland Institute for Leadership. “Students, just like entrepreneurs, need quick access to information in order to compete. We want our students to really understand the global economy and realize that they don’t necessarily have to be in a big city to find opportunity.” 

Lindvahl says access to high-capacity broadband can help contribute to the area’s economic future when tech-savvy students start to see opportunity in rural Illinois. 

“A driving goal of this program is to encourage kids to come back. Every community worries about its kids leaving,” Lindvahl said. “It’s critical we connect with our young people and this kind of ongoing engagement between successful business leaders and students is a key.”

A capstone of the CEO class is starting a real-world business. In the past five years, 80 businesses have been started and 20 are still operational. More than 10 students have started an additional business since graduating from the class. Most importantly, 87 of 88 CEO students have gone on to college. 

“Kids are yearning to connect with the world,” Lindvahl said. “Starting a business in the 21st century means interacting with individuals from all over, and broadband allows that. For example, last week a student used Skype to call a man in China to find information about a product she was sourcing.”

New CEO classes will begin in Sauk Valley and Sangamon County in Fall 2013, courtesy of the Broadband Innovation Fund. Lindvahl says more than six other Illinois communities have expressed interest in the program.

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