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Saluki Screen Repair owner Pryor Jordan talks with students of the Jackson CEO Program in 2016 about his entrepreneurial journey. Schools are looking at more ways to incorporate business skills into core curricula. 

A program open to many Southern Illinois high school students is giving students a real-world and first-hand business education. Known as CEO — short for Creating Economic Opportunities — these programs combined classroom experience, mentorship from business leaders and entrepreneurship education to help students become start-up business owners themselves.

Developed and coordinated by the Effingham-based Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship, there are more than 20 CEO programs throughout the Midwest including ones in Jackson, Jefferson, Perry, Saline and Union counties.

“Young entrepreneurs are identified in our school systems like athletes and scholars are,” explains Craig Lindvahl, executive director of the Midland Institute. “We’re trying to encourage and educate entrepreneurs. When we identify and connect with those kids to begin creating in their minds that their hometowns are the best places for the best opportunities, that is game-changing.”

In CEO programs, students participate in a high school entrepreneurship class where they get academic credit, meet with business people (often in their businesses) and learn how to develop and run their own enterprise.

“What really CEO is all about, is giving these students the experiences that they will never forget and it may literally shaped them into the entrepreneur that they want to be at some point. And that is why I am so passionate about it,” explains Jeff Haarmann of Affordable Gas and Electric who chairs the Jefferson County CEO board of directors.”

Haarmann says each of the programs utilizes a facilitator who oversees, but does not lecture the classes. The program is completely funded by contributions from area businesses.

“It is done in conjunction with the school districts in many cases, the kids get college dual credit as well as high school credits,” he says. “The schools have been tremendously supportive of us as business people wanting to come in and share our real life experiences with them.”

Ken Stoner, now with the Illinois Small Business Development Center at Southern Illinois University, served as facilitator of Jackson CEO for the program's first three years.

“CEO is a phenomenal opportunity for these students to, to not only build practical business skills, but to engage with business owners and business leaders in the area and start building a network that will benefit them again, whether they start their own business or go on to work for someone else,” he says.

Lindvahl says CEO can impact local communities.

“Kids see entrepreneurship as a way to have some control over their lives,” he says. “People worry about the kids leaving our communities because they feel like there is opportunity only available elsewhere. This program changes their view of their hometowns.”

Haarmann agrees.

“Our whole intent with the CEO program is that we utilize this as a way for them to start connecting to the business community and understand that they can bring their business back after they go to college, if that's what they choose to do, and they could actually start a business in our local community and sort of build from within. And so it's an organic economic development tool for us.”


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