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Three area high schools to offer CEO program starting next fall

GIBSON CITY — Early on in his presentation Thursday to Gibson City business leaders about the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship’s Prairielands CEO program, Austin Brooks showed a video of one of the program’s former participants.

The young man was just an average student, at best, in high school — someone who probably spent as much time looking out the window in class as paying attention to his teacher.

Today, he runs his own business selling network and computer equipment all over the country.

“Before I came to CEO, I didn’t have the business management skills,” he said. “I was an IT guy, but I wasn’t a businessman.”

“CEO gave him the confidence to start his own business,” said Brooks, community engagement leader for the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship.

The young man in the video is just one of many success stories of the CEO program in its 11-year history. The program was started in Effingham County by the Effingham-based Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship, and today there are 45 such programs in five states, with 168 high schools participating, Brooks said.

Three more high schools in East Central Illinois are slated to join the program starting in 2019. That’s when Fisher High School, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School and Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School will begin offering the CEO program to their students.

CEO is an acronym that stands for “Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities.” The program involves students learning the skills they need to start their own business and then developing their own business plan, Brooks said.

The program involves students visiting local businesses and hearing from guest speakers from local businesses.

“There’s no text book,” Brooks told members of the Gibson Area Chamber of Commerce during their monthly general meeting Thursday. “Their curriculum is all of you — it’s your life experience. Their education comes from you.”

The participating students will meet for 90 minutes every weekday and receive two credits toward high school graduation, Brooks said. Over the course of the year, they will make 30 to 50 visits to local businesses and hear from 30 to 40 guest speakers from local businesses, as well, Brooks said. When not visiting local businesses, the students will meet at one of four designated “host sites,” Brooks explained.

A facilitator will be hired to lead the students and hand out assignments, Brooks said. Students will be matched with a business mentor.

“This never takes place within the walls of a school,” Brooks said. “The students are going to be at the hospital in a conference room one day or at the electrical co-op another day. They’re always out and about.”

Throughout the course of the year, the students will be tasked with writing two business plans — one as a group and the other individually, Brooks said. They need to demonstrate how their business plan would be profitable, and at the end of the year all of the students will show off their business plans at a local “trade show,” Brooks said.

“They’ll have to go through a ‘shark tank,’ and they’ll have to go through a ‘banker day’ to make sure their finances are good,” Brooks said. “They have to prove that they know a little something about the business that they’re getting ready to sell to the community.”

The hope is that through the program, the students will be in a position to start their own business upon graduating from high school — and hopefully in their own communities, Brooks said.

“They learn how to shake hands, look you in the eye, and they have to dress business professional every day,” Brooks said.

Brooks said “roughly 20” students will be selected through an application process to participate in the program at Fisher, GCMS and PBL high schools next fall. A selection committee will select the participating students based on their application and references provided. Brooks said the program needs students who are “trustworthy” and have “good work ethic,” not necessarily those who earn straight A’s.

The program is being funded locally by 25 investors, with each contributing $1,000 annually over the program’s first three years. The local program still is in search of at least 10 more investors to each contribute $1,000 per year over the initial three-year period, Brooks said.

At least initially, only those businesses that invest in the program will have the opportunity to participate in it by providing speakers for the students and hosting student visits, Brooks said.

The local program will be overseen by an 11-member board of directors comprising two people from each of the three communities and one school administrator from each community.

The board’s chairman, Eric Stalter of the Fisher National Bank, credited Bob Dickey, a former employee of Paxton-based Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative, with getting the idea off the ground to start the program in this area.

“Without Bob, this does not happen,” Stalter said.

Stalter also credited local businesses with providing the financial support to start the program — especially Gibson Area Hospital, which “stepped up in a major way like no one else in this community.”

Dickey said that when he first learned about the program during a meeting in Charleston in 2010, his “eyes lit up.”

“I said, ‘We want this here in East Central Illinois,’” Dickey said.

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