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CEO Program Fosters Teen Entrepreneurs

GALESBURG — ROWVA High School junior Gracie Gibbons may seem like an ordinary student, but she’s also an entrepreneur. Her business is called G’s Natural Skincare. They create cosmetics, although so far they only have two hand creams for sale.

″(We have) lovely lavender and awakening citrus,” Gibbons said. “It’s nice and simple. One (scent) wakes you up, and one calms you down.”

Gibbons is one of the six young entrepreneurs to come through the new Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities, or CEO, program, a new county-wide program created by the Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development and the Galesburg Community Foundation.

This program reached its culmination Tuesday with the Knox County Illinois 2019 Trade Show, a showcase of the six students’ work, as well as some of the area businesses who mentored them.

The program began development in 2017, with nearly a year before the program launched for the 2018-19 school year in August. The program is open to any junior or senior in a Knox County public or private school. Instead of being taught by teachers, it’s taught by facilitators from the business community, be they an accountant or an entrepreneur.

The first semester culminated in a group business, which turned out to be a gourmet hot chocolate bar at the Galesburg Express event in December. Afterward, students were given free rein to develop their own businesses.

“It’s very much a trial by fire program,” said KCAPED president Ken Springer. “Students have filed their legal paperwork, keep books, had to come up with a business plan, had to contract a website. That immersiveness is what makes the program really cool.”

At the Lake Storey Pavilion on Tuesday night, these students showed the soft skills they have accumulated in the program, giving articulate pitches for their businesses, which ranged from farmed poultry to sneakers to marketing services.

Knoxville High School junior Dalton Simms created Dalton Decor. Following his own passion of finding and fixing up antiques and other pre-owned items, Simms purchased items at resale shops and garage sales, repainting many. While he says he hasn’t actually begun to make sales, he hopes to soon.

Galesburg Christian School Junior Ben Beebee already has found over 10 clients for his business MDRN Marketing Solutions, which began as a graphic design venture. While these clients, which include other students in the program, local churches and Midwest Uniform Supply, have all sought his graphic design, he intends to keep operating the business, offering product photography, branding, search engine optimization, social media, video services and more.

“I know I want to keep my (business) as long as I can,” he said. “I’m hoping to build some more clientele here.”

According to Springer, there’s no mandate for what students who made it through the CEO program do afterward. They may keep their businesses, return to them later or perhaps even decide entrepreneurship isn’t for them. He says the experience will be valuable either way.

“They’re walking away from this program with two key things. No. 1: They’re walking away with communications skills that are way above their age group,” he said. “No. 2: these students are walking away with a network that I don’t know how you would duplicate.”

The students have had about 20 guest speakers, pitched bankers, attended a shark tank simulation and built a local business network that Springer says rivals anyone in the community.

Galesburg High School junior Mason Martinez’s business is built from his passion for fashion and his awareness of the needs of the local “sneakerhead” community. His business 2 Lit Outlit goes to Nike stores in Chicago to bring back items that can’t be found in town, and also fixes up pre-worn shoes for resale. He plans to keep growing the business, as well as expanding into women’s shoes.

The expo marked the end of the first year for the program, a pilot year that’s success Springer hopes to replicate for years on end, laying the bedrock for Galesburg’s businesses of the future.

“Our goal is to run this program forever,” Springer said. “How cool would it be if 20 years from now a CEO student would come back and speak to the 2039 CEO class?”

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