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CEO program steering committee gives update

MACOMB — Progress is being made on the Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities program, an initiative aimed at training high school students to become entrepreneurs. 

The CEO steering committee held an update on the initiative Thursday afternoon at the Spoon River College Outreach Center for about 30 interested community leaders.

The Bushnell, Macomb and West Prairie school districts will be participating in the program, which trains students in entrepreneurship through instruction, hands-on experience, and mentorship by business leaders.

Committee member Rachel Lenz led the presentation, and other members also contributed information and answered questions during discussion.
“We all very much believe in this program,” said Honey Zimmerman, a member of the steering committee. She added that communities that have done the CEO program are “already starting to see a change in their communities.“

Lenz said teaching entrepreneurship among youth could help minimize or reverse population decline by providing incentive and opportunity for young residents to remain in their respective communities as business owners. 

“This is geared toward rural communities,” she said. ”... It really opens (students’) eyes to their own communities. It gives them an appreciation for their own communities. We’re experiencing population loss. This could help stop that.“

She cited surveys taken of students both before and after the program. Before the program, only a few students – three of 24 – wanted to return to their communities. Afterwards, 20 of 24 said they wished to return. “A lot of communities see their towns as a dead end.. We know there’s a lot of potential.“
What makes the CEO program different from other business shadowing opportunities in the community is the high level of commitment students will be required to have, committee member Kim Pierce said. 

Students will be required to create their own business not only on paper, but also outside the classroom. Just as they would for a real workplace, students will also be expected to dress up in business attire every day and arrange their own transportation for training. 
In some cases, students will need to arrive early or opt not to be involved in certain extracurricular activities if there’s a scheduling conflict, just as they would in real life. “It’s all about choices,” Pierce said.

Lenz said that students in the program reap the benefits of mentorship, gaining valuable skill sets, increased confidence and a network they can draw from as they build their businesses. They also have opportunities to draw from their own experiences and show their creative side.
She gave an example of a student whose idea ended up being patented: a coloring book that allowed two people to color while conversing face-to-face across a table. She said the student came up with the idea because she and her grandmother had enjoyed coloring together that way. “There’s a plethora of creativity these students bring to the table,” she said.

Committee member Todd Lester said he liked the program in part because it doesn’t necessarily cater to the top 10% of students. “These could be kids who weren’t necessarily college-bound,” he said.

Students who want to apply will go through a blind application process. According to the Harvard Business Review, a blind application or recruitment process helps to reduce or eliminate bias in the selection process.

The group has collected the initiation fee of $25,000 and is raising operating funds for three years. Lenz explained that fundraising in advance would help provide stability for the program and consistent quality for participating students. People or organizations wishing to donate can contribute up to $1,000 per year. Educational institutions are prohibited from donating. 

As of Thursday, the group had collected $74,750 toward the total goal of $165,000. The initiation fee will go to the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship, the nonprofit organization which originated the program, to pay for the resources and training necessary to implement the program.
The steering committee is also looking for a facilitator to coach students on a part-time basis of about 20 hours a week. Ideally, this individual would have entrepreneurial and/or coaching experience. 

The committee is also seeking business leaders to help mentor students. “We all know our businesses are hit up for donations. People can be involved in other ways, and we want them too,” Lenz said.

The CEO program originated in 2008 with the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship, an Effingham-based 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Since then the program has grown to 40 classes spanning several Midwestern states including Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and others. The idea for the CEO program was first introduced to the McDonough County community in fall of 2016.

Reach Michelle Langhout by email at or find her on Facebook.

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