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Sangamon CEO program teaches students valuable business skills

Teens interested in a career in business have a unique opportunity to connect with local business owners and entrepreneurs through the Sangamon CEO program.

CEO, which stands for Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities, is available to high school seniors. There are 11 other states with similar programs. Christian and Effingham counties also have their own CEO programs.

Interested students have to apply to the program, and their acceptance is based on recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors, as well as essays about themselves and their business plans.

Students meet every day before school to learn from facilitators and local businesspeople. They spend the year developing both group and individual businesses, which culminates in a trade show at the end of the year.

In addition to the facilitators, students have access to a local businessperson for help. In the Mentor Match program, students are assigned a local business owner or entrepreneur who can help them with schoolwork, their businesses or anything else they could be dealing with.

This program helps establish lasting business connections, which ties into the main goal of the CEO program: to help students create business opportunities in Springfield and Sangamon County.

Nabih Elhajj is a first-year facilitator for the program. He has been involved with the Sangamon program since it began in fall 2013, and he runs two startup businesses in app development and marketing.

As a facilitator, his role is to prepare and teach lessons about how to create, communicate and execute business plans. The program also teaches students about business etiquette, leadership and problem-solving skills.

“You’re inspiring them more than you’re teaching them,” Elhajj said. “You’re inspiring them to challenge boundaries or challenge status quos.”

At the beginning of the year, students are asked what kind of business they would like to create for the trade show. Elhajj said that they usually say things like “mowing grass” or “baking cookies” because those are easily attainable.

“When you take that comfort element away and you say ‘I’m challenging you: tell me what you want to solve.’ Then you get solutions that are bigger than just ‘I wanna cut grass,’” he said.

When challenged, students come up with more complex ideas and solutions, which makes them better thinkers and business planners.

Class of 2016

There are 31 students in this year’s CEO class from several area schools, and they all have different reasons for joining the program.

Gage Marinelli is a senior at Tri-City High School who already runs his own business: Gage’s Poultry Plus in Dawson.

“I wanted to learn how to run my business better and keep running it in the future,” Gage said. “(I want) to keep learning new things.”

Sabina Tapscott, a senior at Pleasant Plains, also joined CEO after hearing about it from classmates who were involved in the program. Sabina thought CEO would be a new and interesting way to learn about business.

“I just like to change it up a little, and I really don’t like sitting in a classroom all day,” she said. “So (CEO) was just something that was very different from what I’ve always done, and I’m so glad I did it.”

Allison Hudspeth is a senior at Edinburg High School who, despite living in Christian County, is a member of the Sangamon CEO program.

Allison applied to both programs, was accepted into both, and decided to join the Sangamon program so she could be mentored by Jessica Kocurek from Willow and Birch Salon. But that isn’t the only reason Allison decided to join CEO.

“I went to their graduation (last year) and I heard the girls give their speeches. They just seemed so confident, they were so put together, and so determined,” she said. “I kind of thought that (CEO) would maybe help me be better at public speaking, make me more confident.”

Average CEO day

CEO students begin their day at 7:30 a.m. at a business picked out by their teachers. While 7:30 is pretty early for most teenagers’ standards, Sabina said the early start doesn’t bother her anymore because she’s excited to learn new things and see her friends.

After all the students arrive, they prepare for whatever is scheduled for them that day, which is usually a guest speaker.

“The speaker will talk to us, and they’ll tell us about their career, what they’re interested in and how their business runs,” Allison said.

Sometimes they go on tours of different places, like the Bunn Factory or the new Memorial facility. At Bunn, the students got to speak to a panel of supply chain managers and met the CEO of Bunn-o-Matic.

“The panel just talked to them about how you source product, how you transport it from one country to another.” Elhajj said.

The session ends with a discussion among students and the facilitator.

After CEO

The goal of Sangamon CEO is to create new business opportunities in Springfield and its surrounding areas. There are two surviving businesses from the first year of CEO, one being Framework Photography.

Nick Smith and Andrew Gochenour both graduated from Southeast High School in 2014, but they started Framework Photography while they were still in school. Smith was a member of the Sangamon CEO program his senior year.

“Before the program, I definitely was shy,” he said. “(CEO) has just given me a bigger overall sense of confidence.”

Smith said that one of the most important things he learned in CEO was business etiquette.

“It’s the small things that you don’t really think about when you’re in high school, that they really kind of put into your mind,” Smith said. “Once you learn those things, you’re one step ahead of the game.”

Smith said that things like knowing how to shake hands, make eye contact and dress properly has allowed him to be taken more seriously as a business owner.

Photography was just a hobby for Smith before he was in CEO. A little over a year after they started Framework, he and Gochenour bought their own studio with connections they made through the program.

CEO helped Smith realize that he didn’t want to work for anyone else, or “climb someone else’s ladder.” He wanted to build his own ladder, and so he did.

“I think the program really helped with that, and it’s a program where you have to think on your own, you’re not really relying on someone else to tell you what to do,” Smith said. “You kind of have to just figure it out yourself.”

— Megan Crain is a senior at Southeast High School.

By Megan Crain, Voice intern

Posted Nov. 2, 2015 at 10:30 PM

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