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Willmar area CEO program connects students with business leaders

WILLMAR, Minn. — A new program in the Willmar area could potentially give high school students a head start on learning to become successful entrepreneurs and small business owners.

The CEO program, which stands for “Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities,” was founded in 2008 in Effingham, Ill., under the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship. The program connects high school juniors and seniors with business leaders in their own community.

The first teacher of the CEO program, Craig Lindvahl of Effingham, now helps bring the program to other areas. Willmar will be one of nine new sites for the program in 2014. So far, the Willmar, New London-Spicer and Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City high schools have signed on to participate in the program.

Lindvahl has been working with Gary Geiger, chairman of the Heritage Bankshares Group in Willmar, to develop the program here.

According to Lindvahl, the program will teach high school students essential life skills that will benefit them in both their personal and professional lives, including communication, collaboration and responsibility for continued learning.

“This is the most powerful generation of people we have ever produced,” said Lindvahl, a 34-year teacher, filmmaker and executive director of the Midland Institute. “They have more knowledge, more abilities, more excitement, more drive than any group of young people in a very long time. What they need from us, though, are these life skills that will help them be successful people, both professionally and personally. There are a lot of 40-year-olds who don’t have some of these skills.”

As part of the program, students meet 90 minutes every day before school with local business mentors. From these mentors, students learn how to create a business plan, how to pitch their ideas and, essentially, how to run their own business.

The program also aims to show students the opportunities that exist for entrepreneurship in their hometown areas. In a pre-class survey among the first CEO class in Illinois, only three of 25 students said they wanted to work in their hometowns after college.

At the end of the CEO program, that number had jumped to 21 students who said they were interested in establishing a business in their hometown, Lindvahl said.

That statistic is one of the reasons that Geiger said he wanted to bring the program to Willmar.

“As a businessperson in Willmar, Minn., that’s a big incentive for this program,” Geiger said. “Not only do we want kids to understand entrepreneurship, but on the other side, think of how good it will be for our community if these kids come back here after college.”

Among the 110 students who have graduated from CEO classes in Illinois and Indiana, 105 have started a business, with 20 to 25 of them continuing to run that business. Fifteen to 20 students have gone on to start a new business, according to Lindvahl.

One of those students is Alexis Teichmiller, who runs her business, a wholesale traveling boutique called A T Avenue, while attending Eastern Illinois University. She completed the CEO program in 2011 while a senior in high school.

Before going through the CEO class, Teichmiller had plans to be a lawyer. Now, the college junior says she can’t imagine working for anyone but herself.

“It definitely taught me that no dream is unattainable if you have the right resources and are willing to work for it,” she said. “It also taught me what my community has to offer me. Before I took the class, I thought the opportunity was elsewhere, in a bigger city or really anywhere but Effingham. Now, I want to move back after I graduate.”

Teichmiller will graduate from EIU in 2015. Though she doesn’t have concrete plans for her long-term future, she does know that she’ll be ready to tackle any challenge head-on. She says that confidence comes from her experience in the CEO class, and she encourages any high school student who wants to find their passion to go through the program.

“People from my generation tend to be more self-conscious and can lack confidence,” Teichmiller said. “This type of program gives students my age and younger the opportunity to take their uncertainty and give them a purpose. If this program can do for other people what it’s done for me, then every community should try to have one.”

Teichmiller is just one of the many students who have benefited from the CEO program, Lindvahl said, and he and Geiger are both confident the program will work in the Willmar area, too.

“The best resource your community has is its people,” Lindvahl said. “If you share that resource with the people who need it most, the young people, then you better believe some pretty terrific things can happen.”

The CEO program will launch next fall. Geiger is now looking for 50 Willmar-area businesses to sign on as sponsors of CEO. Sponsors give $1,000 to the program for three years, as well as commit to being involved in the program in some way, either as mentors, speakers or a host site.

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