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New program will train students to create businesses

Business and education leaders in Sartell, Sauk Rapids and St. Cloud are in the early stages of launching a program that will teach high school seniors to be entrepreneurs.

Called Great River CEO, the program will welcome its first students in fall 2019.

Right now, organizers are raising funds to train and market the effort and then to hire a facilitator/teacher.

The “CEO” in the name stands for Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities and the entrepreneurial experience is the heart of the plan.

“The program will teach students how to be entrepreneurs and students will learn from people who are running businesses. They will teach skills on how to run a business,” said Adam O’Doherty, executive director of Partner for Student Success, one of the many education and business groups backing the program.

The initial class of 20 students will be chosen from applicants at Sartell, Sauk Rapids, Apollo and Tech high schools.

Right now, the group is trying to raise $25,000 to fund training and marketing. Then they’ll be looking for 40 businesses to contribute $1,000 for three years. The $40,000 will primarily pay for a teacher/facilitator to run the program.

If businesses want to participate but can’t make the cash commitment, there are other ways to participate. Once underway, the program will need tour hosts, speakers, mentors and places for meetings.

The students will meet five days a week for an hour before school. Once or twice a week, the class will meet at a host business or go on a tour, O’Doherty said.

In the project-based program, students will apply the concepts learned to create their own businesses. They will write business plans that will be reviewed by a banker and a lawyer. At the end of the year, students will present their projects at a showcase.

The CEO concept was developed by the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship. Schools in Willmar, Staples-Motley and Wright County are currently running CEO programs.

Willmar’s CEO program inspired the local effort.

“One Sartell Chamber of Commerce board member had a friend’s sister in the Willmar program. He presented the idea to the chamber board and we expanded it to the four high schools,” said Nikki Sweeter, the Sartell chamber’s executive director. “Willmar helped us to see we can be successful here. They have been helpful in figuring out what our program ought to be.”

Businesses that want to join the program should contact Sweeter at

O’Doherty and Sweeter say there will be multiple paybacks for businesses and students.

“We hear in the community about lack of entrepreneurs coming out of school. Forty-four percent of businesses say they lack skilled workers,” O’Doherty said.

“We raise great kids, they leave for college and they don’t come back,” Sweeter said.

O’Dohert added, “We hope they come back after college because of the relationships they have developed. Businesses are excited about identifying rising stars.”

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