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CEO Program enters its second year

On August 24, five local young people began their journey to becoming entrepreneurs through the McDonough County Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities, or CEO program, now in its second year. In 2010 the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship was founded in Effingham Illinois by educator and filmmaker Craig Lindvahl to support the expansion and growth of the Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (CEO) program for high school students. Today, the program can be found in fifty-six counties across six states.

Last year, twelve students representing Macomb, Bushnell-Prairie City, West Prairie High Schools as well as a home school student completed the intense year-long academic program culminating in a successful class business – the “Return of the Roaring 20s Escape Room” - and several individual businesses.

This year, the participants include Bushnell-Prairie City junior Devin Suggitt and four Macomb seniors: Jade Laverdiere, Bryce Lester, Gracie Murphy, and Laine Torrance. These future entrepreneurs attend their CEO session each morning starting at 7:30a.m. wearing business attire and ready to learn from dozens of area business leaders. Covering key concepts such as personal responsibility, skillful communication, leadership development as well as business basics like writing business plans, tracking finances, raising capital, and human resources, the students will gain valuable skills and a network that will serve them long after high school.

The program is entirely funded by area business investors and is offered free to high school juniors and seniors who apply through a rigorous blind application process. Kristen Conrad, the owner of Make Fit Happen, decided to support the program first as an investor, then as a guest speaker and a mentor. “The minute I heard about the McDonough County CEO program, I knew I had to be involved. My passion is entrepreneurship. The thought of having a program that was specifically designed to help our young people create and follow through with starting a new business was very exciting to me,” says Conrad. “To watch the change throughout the year in these entrepreneurs was nothing less than amazing.”

While the program was able to start meeting in person, facilitator Christi Steelman was ready to pivot to virtual sessions when Bushnell-Prairie City Schools temporarily closed their doors on August 31 because of a confirmed positive result and exposure. According to Steelman, “The board of directors and I worked closely together this summer to prepare for just such an event. While the most robust experience involves in-person interactions with each other and community business leaders, we have nevertheless crafted meaningful experiences and interactions for this year’s class of young entrepreneurs, while safeguarding all participants.”


CEO Board Chair and Macomb Park District Executive Director Rachel Lenz said, “Watching our first-year students grow into the young professionals they are today was a powerful experience. Even through the beginning unknowns of the pandemic, our 2020 cohort successfully pivoted with us, many pushing forward with their own businesses. The upcoming class of young entrepreneurs has already shown incredible potential. I look forward to see how they each grow into impactful young community leaders.”

This year’s group of students have many challenges to face. They know that in addition to changing the way they meet with each other and with guest speakers, they will also need to adapt the way they develop and execute their business plans this year. That hasn’t diminished their enthusiasm, or the effort that they are putting into the program. MHS senior Gracie Murphy says, “I applied because I wanted the opportunity to get involved with professionals in my community and gain crucial skills to be successful in life.” One such skill is the ability to be flexible and adapt to change. It appears that these young people will have a head start on developing not only what it takes to merely survive, but also to thrive in an ever-changing world.

The McDonough County CEO Program is creating entrepreneurial opportunities for high school students throughout the county. For more information, please contact CEO Chair, Rachel Lenz by phone at 309-833-4562, by email:, or on the Web:

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