Heart of the Matter – Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities: CEO Students Learn Outside the Book
A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Craig Lindvahl, founder of the CEO Program (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities), from Effingham, IL at a breakfast meeting of CEO. He contacted me after reading the Sept. 11 Heart of the Matter.
I had written of an Eastland-area effort to rekindle the entrepreneurial spirit in our high school students. The “Hollowing Out the Middle” group hopes to reverse the trend of urging our young men and women to leave their small towns, and realize they do not have to move on to bigger and better opportunities. Yes, go to college, or vocational training. Get experienced. But bring your new-found talents and skills back home, and thrive in the community that helped nurture you.
At the breakfast meeting in Sterling, I was introduced to the 21 students and several board members in the CEO Program. The students had been working on their communication skills and were to practice casual conversations and table manners during breakfast.
I had the pleasure of discussing the plans and vision of five students and a board member. One of the students, who is planning to become an independent bakery owner, put her love of baking to the test. She prepared the delicious muffins, rolls and bread served at the breakfast meeting.
During the course of the program, I saw the spark of creativity light up the room, as Lindvahl discussed the plans of the students. He didn’t talk at them. He inspired them.
I learned a few other things about this unique “classroom.”
“There are only four CEO programs in Illinois,” said Leandra Hartman, CEO Instructor through the Whiteside Area Career Center (WACC), and former teacher at Eastland High School. “It is exciting to be on the cutting edge of something new and positive.”
Starting this school year, the CEO program is funded primarily by a large group of business investors, who also participate actively in the structure of the class.
Students throughout the WACC region had to apply to be accepted to the program, no different than a true-to-life job search. They prepared resumes, asked for references, and communicated their reasons for wanting to be accepted. They were interviewed, their references contacted, and interviewed again. In the end, 21 made the cut.
The CEO class encourages creativity, introducing students to the basics of conceptualizing - starting and running a small business. They learn from business men and women as they tour their work environment.
They learn the ABC’s of business, such as supply and demand, cost/benefit analysis, competitive advantage, and opportunity recognition. Additional coursework includes innovative thinking strategies, product development, business structure, marketing, financial strategies, record keeping, and preparing an income statement, balance sheet, income and cash flow statements.
But the students do more than just sit and listen, take a few note, then clap in appreciation when the speaker is done. They will apply their new-found knowledge to their own business plan. Currently, they are exploring their options as a group, reviewing several business plans, analyzing the pro’s and con’s. In the end, they hope to choose a plan that will net them a profit, to be re-invested into next year’s program.
Students continue to focus on communication skills, with an emphasis in writing memos and nonverbal communication. Hartman said that students were challenged to write a complimentary memo, and another that informed personnel of reduction in work hours.
“Role playing helps determine the effects our body language has on others,” Hartman explained.
Frantz Manufacturing Company recently welcomed the students to the Frantz Bearing Plant in Sterling. As a donor and supporter of the CEO program, Frantz was delighted to have the group of potential future entrepreneurs tour the facility to see how ball bearings and other Frantz products are made.
Carl Boehm, Plant Superintendent for the Frantz Bearing Division, showed students how product starts from raw material like steel wire, bars or coiled sheets and proceeds through various forming, cutting, heat treating, plating and assembly operations to complete final products ready to ship to Frantz customers.
The students proceeded to the Frantz conference room to meet President & COO John Gvozdjak for a class on “How to Hold an Effective Meeting.” The students learned about various types of meetings that businesses hold, along with tips on how to make the meeting successful.
“Teaching our young people about business is incredibly important to the future success of our community and economy,” said Gvozdjak. “We want CEO students to experience what companies and employees already do in our community so they will think about launching their own future businesses right here in their home towns.”
In the short two months since the program started, the CEO students have visited Northland Mall and Wahl Clipper, and have learned from presentations from Oxbo Products, investigating marketing, sales, engineering, purchasing, manufacturing, innovation, and finance. New terminology was introduced to their vocabulary, such as vertical integration, differentiation, PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) and open price point (OPP). CEO students have visited United Way, a not-for-profit, and learned about the vast number of agencies and programs it supports, including CEO.
As the CEO Program matures along with the students, I foresee an economic sea-change in not only Northwest Illinois, but state-wide, if not nation-wide. These 21 students have the opportunity to see for themselves how proper planning and teamwork effectively reduces the risk factors related to starting their own business.
“You’re gonna fail. Be prepared for it.” One of the CEO students heard that message from one of the business leaders introduced to the program.
“. . . It really got my attention. It made me realize that people don’t succeed on their first try, and that’s okay. You make mistakes, but you learn from them and move on . . . I never really thought about things that way.”
With an observation like that, I believe the CEO Program is working.