Jackson County CEO student, Zoe Harris, speaks with her banker about receiving a loan for her business, Cadmus, March 31, 2021, at the SIU Small Business Development Center in Carbondale, Ill. Harris created her business as a way of turning her passion of writing into a career by creating content for other business’s websites and social media. (Sophie Whitten | @swhittenphotography)
Jackson County CEO student, Zoe Harris, speaks with her banker about receiving a loan for her business, Cadmus, March 31, 2021, at the SIU Small Business Development Center in Carbondale, Ill. Harris created her business as a way of turning her passion of writing into a career by creating content for other business’s websites and social media.

Sophie Whitten | @swhittenphotography

Community program paves the way for young entrepreneurs

April 14, 2021

In 2010, the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship began providing a space for high school students to build their own businesses while touring local companies and speaking with other businessmen and women through the Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (CEO) program.  

The late Craig Lindvahl founded and directed the program to provide a real-world learning experience for his students in Effingham, Ill. The program brought students from every school in a county together to meet with local companies to learn from them and eventually use what they had learned to create a class business that would build funds for their own individual businesses. The class grew and now has 56 programs in over 200 schools, including Jackson County.

Nic Skovgaard, the facilitator of the Jackson CEO program said the class has been in Jackson County for six years and had 60 students. Every morning, the students meet at a business at 7:30 a.m. wearing professional clothing, ready to learn from members of the community.   

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“The Jackson County CEO program is unlike anything else I’ve ever come in contact with. This is one of the most amazing programs I’ve ever seen because it rewards students for taking risks. It rewards students for getting out of their comfort zone and it rewards students for failing, to be completely honest. We want them to learn from their experiences and the Jackson County CEO program is one of the only places in the students’ high school career where those risks and those failures and those mistakes are rewarded with real life experience,” Skovgaard said. 

Skovgaard said in every school year, there are five main objectives of the class. The first challenge that the students have is the “1 to 100” where each student is given one dollar and two weeks to turn it into one hundred dollars. This helps the students to think creatively about money and how it is spent and earned. The challenge also sets them up for the next challenges of the class and individual businesses and Banker Day, where they meet with bankers to apply for a loan to create their businesses. 

“The first half of the year we form the class business, so it’s a real business formed by the students to create a real profit. That real profit will go into a real bank account. That bank account will be what is used to fund the individual businesses,” Skovgaard said. “Every student will write a business plan, they’ll meet with a banker […] That banker will either approve them or deny them for a real loan from our real class account. They will then seed their own business with their own money that they created in their class business. They will found their first company and they will have real sales and they will do that all before they turn 18 years old.”

For this year’s class business, the students designed the three-day Southern Illinois Shop Local Scavenger Hunt to get the community involved in their program while still following COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions. The students could not host an event with many people so they decided to sell tickets and sponsorships for a scavenger hunt around the businesses and landmarks of the community where participants can visit different locations on a map to earn points towards winning $1,000 of gift cards to local businesses. 

In addition to their group and personal businesses and banker day, the students also compete in a local and national pitch competition where they get to pitch their business ideas to judges for a cash prize. This year Shealee Swisher won first place,  Zac Jorgenson won second place and Zoe Harris won third place in the local competition. 

 Harris, the owner of Cadmus, a service that provides web content for businesses to use in their media and websites to draw more attention from readers, was given an opportunity to follow her passion for writing through her business and the CEO program. 

“CEO has definitely helped me realize that I can really turn my passion into a career […] It’s definitely helped with my confidence level but also it’s helped me a lot with realizing that I don’t have to wait to start on these things that I want to do, and I think that’s where the real value in CEO comes in is that it really pushes you to, um, to achieve your goals,” Harris said. 

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Nic Skovgaard said through CEO, the students learn soft skills such as communication, problem-solving, and decision making that most young adults have not been introduced to in their lives or careers. 

“One of the things that we do every year is we have what’s called an Investor Breakfast and it usually happens very early in the year. At this Investor Breakfast, we have all the students, and you know, they dress up, they show up and we have them stand up at these tables in front of all these people who are instrumental in the program and we have them introduce themselves. And we get these amazing introductions of the most nerve-racked sixteen-year-olds you’ve ever seen in your life,” Skovgaard said. “Then, at the end of the year, we do something very similar where we bring all of the investors back and we let all of the students stand up again and it is transformational to see how far they’ve come.” 

Staff Photographer Sophie Whitten can be reached at [email protected] or on Instagram @swittenphotography.

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