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Entrepreneurial program draws 20 students

Twenty high school seniors in the county are getting a leg up on entrepreneurship and education this year, as the inaugural year of the Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities Program kicks off at the beginning of the school year.


Participating students and their parents recently attended orientation at Lake Hill Winery in Carthage.

The students got an idea of what to expect from the program, and some of the business investors learned what they can expect from the students.

“I think with 20 students we’ll have a mixture. Very few will probably end up being entrepreneurs,” said Craig Wear, local business owner and chair of the Hancock County CEO Program. “I don’t think the goal is to make everybody an entrepreneur, it’s to get everybody to see that side of things and see the possibilities are there if it’s something that fits them.

“I think the exposure will make them more valuable employees.”

The course will operate through Carl Sandburg College in Carthage, which will act as the administrative agent. The course will be taught by Christine Murphy, who was one of four qualified applicants for the position.

“She has experience working for a non-profit, and working under a board,” said Dustin Berg, executive director of the Hancock County Economic Development Corporation and vice chair of the CEO Program. “She has teaching experience. It’s a very hard combination to find. She’s got it all.”

Students will begin class at 7:30 a.m. five days a week and run through a standard curriculum, but much of the value will come from trips to various businesses for hands-on experiences.

“You can get an ‘A’ in the classroom, and that’s great,” Berg said. “But these other things you take out into the world, and people grade you based on those things in the real world.”

Accountability and getting work done are key components of the course, according to Berg. He believes the program will result in a positive change in students.

“We want them to realize their future is something to work for,” Berg said. “When you put work into it, it pays off.”

The CEO Program was born out of the Carthage MAPPING project. Wear, Carthage Industrial Development Corporation President Matt Dickinson and Carthage Community Development Director Amy Graham were all vital in getting the program off the ground and getting school board approval throughout the county early in 2015. The program is funded entirely by businesses or private investments, with the HCEDC footing the $20,000 entry fee to the Midland Institute-created program.

The amount of interest was a surprise for the first-year program, considering the Hancock County program is the smallest in the CEO’s three-state range. Sixteen businesses have pledged $1,000 for three years to be investors, and the idea is that once the program gets going and businesses see the benefit, they can reach 30 investors.

“The ultimate goal of the program is to get kids to come back,” Wear said. “We’re trying to have them see the opportunities that are here. To see that and to think like an entrepreneur, to start a business, create business plans, pitch it to bankers, just to take the fear out of them.

“There aren’t walls they can’t climb.”

Students will dress in business casual attire and travel from place to place, learning about business and the county’s potential for development with each passing grade. The idea behind the program is to get people interested in the county before they leave, and with businesses, economic development and school partnering in the program, the benefits could be large five or 10 years down the road.

“It’s really a regional partnership all working together for Hancock County’s benefit,” Berg said.

The program also is a chance for students to become familiar with small businesses before they take off for college, which may give them a different frame of mind when thinking about business as a whole. Each student will work with a mentor during the program, helping them network before graduating high school.

“If they decide to start a business, in the back of their minds they know they have a built-in network here,” Wear said. “If they need anything they can pick up the phone and call me or 20 other people they’ve had extensive dealings with who have been through all of that.

“In order for us to grow and thrive, we have to grow our own.”

By: Zach Short For the Journal-Pilot

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