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Austin to offer students business learning outside class

AUSTIN — Austin High School students will soon have a chance to become business savvy before they graduate, thanks to a new program launching in the fall.

The Austin Public Schools District on Thursday announced that it will offer a "CEO Program" for juniors and seniors interested in learning about running a small business and what it takes to become successful in the entrepreneurial world.

Thirty-nine business people from Austin volunteered to participate as mentors in the CEO program. Tim Fritz, of Hormel Foods Corp., is a program mentor and a member of the committee overseeing the program.

Investors would help fund the program, promising about $1,000 per year for the next three years.

"The business community feels strongly about this," Fritz said. "It's going to be a transformational experience. The recipe that forms this class is one that works, and gets you connected."

Willmar High School implemented a CEO Program several years ago and saw success. Facilitators of the project visited Austin at least three times, and the district found interest in the program.

On Thursday, Willmar students sat onstage and shared their own business ventures with Austin and Pacelli students: a smoked-foods truck, a vintage clothing store, a cosmetics business and a program where businesses can learn to reach younger generations.

The Willmar representatives said the biggest lesson for students is simple: make mistakes and don't quit. Despite the potential for failure of their business, the students were quick to point out that the program offered a safe environment where students can learn what went wrong and start over if needed.

Tyler Gehrking, program facilitator at Willmar High School, said that they approached multiple school districts regarding the CEO Program, and Austin was one of the few that decided to offer it to students.

Gehrking said that students who complete the program show more maturity and are more prepared for success in the "real world" before even entering college.

"We want students to be comfortable and excited about the future," he said. "About half the businesses will succeed and the other half will end. We lose students half-way because they either hate it or they realize there was a flaw in their approach. It teaches you how to have basic life skills. You learn how to work."

Administrators said the program would be highly competitive. Students hoping to join the program would need to fill out an application and write a personal essay. Only 22 students will be selected to participate in the yearlong course.

Students who complete the program may showcase their finished project or business during a trade show at the end of the year.

For the majority of the experience, students will meet in a local business.

"It's giving kids authentic experience in the business and real world," said Principal Andrea Malo. "This is giving them real-world experience and, hopefully, maybe some will come back to Austin and start businesses here."

Mason Silbaugh, 16, of Lyle and an Austin High School sophomore, expressed interested in joining the CEO program.

His ideas included veterinary medicine for agricultural use, and hopes the course might help him find a way to put his ideas into action.

"This is more of a hands-on class, and it's better than sitting in lecture," Silbaugh said. "I think it's a great idea and to have these opportunities to make your own business like this … the more the better."

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