Greene-Calhoun CEO Program going strong
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By Carmen Ensinger
After a one-year hiatus because of Covid, the Greene-Calhoun CEO program is back this year with one of the largest classes ever. The students represent Calhoun High School as well as all three high schools in Greene County.
“After not being able to have the program last year at all, we have an exceptionally large class this year,” Program Facilitator Jennifer Sellars said. “They are an exceptional group of kids. They are talented, bright and they are going to do some really, really good things this year.”
The Greene County CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities) program began in 2017 and was created to take high school seniors out of the classroom and put them in settings where they learn about entrepreneurship and economic development.
“Our main goal is to help these young people understand what they have in their communities,” Sellars said. “How important it is for them to continue to stimulate economic development as well as promote economic development and even participate in that by understanding what it takes for a community to be sustainable and if we don’t have people coming back to our communities our communities are going to be gone.”
Students have the opportunity to meet and talk with business owners to see what they go through as well as how much they contribute to their communities.
“This is so valuable to these young people,” Sellars said. “I know they see the businesses supporting them through their school, whether it be through academics or athletics, but I don’t think young people fully understand the gravity of how much we need to continue these small businesses.”
Illinois Electric Cooperative in Winchester is the catalyst behind the program.
“They are the main sponsor of this program and when you think about and electric cooperative – if you don’t have people living on your lines – you no longer have electric lines,” Sellars said. “So we need people who are staying in these communities or coming back. Our communities offer real support for our young people.”
The program is, more or less, a hands-on program. They don’t just talk about a business, they go visit that business and let the business owner tell them themselves.
“It is not just me telling them about a business,” Sellars said. “We go visit the business and the kids get to see where these businesses are and how they operate. Or, we have speakers come in and speak to us. Plus, it’s a wide range. We are talking about people from everything from the agriculture industry to the banking industry.”
Each week they go into a different business, such as Rockbridge Manufacturing, Pharmacy Plus and many, many others.
“It is so much fun to watch these young people listen and ask questions to these business owners,” Sellars said. “It is unfortunate, but there are so many people just waiting and watching for young people to do bad things and, in reality, there are so many good things that these young people are doing and I hope this program highlights those great things because they are smart and always thinking and they have great ideas and I think this program helps highlight that.”
Throughout the course of the program, Sellars said she sees the students grow in their confidence.
“There is a transformation that happens to each of these students over the course of the year,” she said. “It is different for all of them, and it takes place at different times, but I can tell you that if you saw a student in August when school started and you saw that same student in May when school was over, there was a big transformation. They have changed and its either in the way they think or they have stepped out of their comfort zone. Those who were once very quiet are now talking. The parents see it, the teachers see it. Its absolutely amazing to see this happen.”
But the class is more than just listening to business owners. There is an aspect to the class where students have to actually start their own business.
“They spend the first part of the class creating, developing, planning and then implementing a class business that they are all a part of,” Sellars said. “It is a different type of business every year. Then, the money that they raise from this class business is seed money for their individual businesses that they will start in the second semester of the class.”
Each student has to come up with and create their own individual business.
“They have to plan it, figure out how to budget for it and how to advertise it,” Sellars said. “Then, at the end of the year, typically the end of April or the first part of May, we have a trade show where these kids showcase their individual businesses and people can come in and take a look at a business and actually purchase products or services from the kids.”
On Nov. 16, the students held an Investor’s Lunch at the First Baptist Church in Carrollton. This luncheon was an opportunity for the students to meet the people who invest in their program and it’s also an opportunity for the investors to meet the students.
“It is a good experience for the students to learn to converse with people, especially adults,” Sellars said. “We had students who got up and spoke, so they are practicing their public speaking skills. But more importantly, it is an opportunity for them to meet the people who support this program and I always stress to the students that the only reason we have this program is because we have people who invest in the program.”
Another investor event is planned for the spring where the students will again speak to the investors.
“It is always interesting because the investors will see a change in the students from the fall to the spring just in their demeanor and their communication skills, which is what we are teaching them,” Sellars said. “Those are things that they might not learn in a traditional classroom. Skills such as eye contact, hand shakes, how to introduce yourself, how to sit down and eat a meal with someone, etcetera.”
Once again, it is hands-on experience, not text book learning.
“They are learning things because they are doing it and that is hands-on, real world experience that I think is the most valuable part of the program,” Sellars said. “We don’t just tell them about it or they don’t just read about it – they actually go out and do it and I think any time students are able to do something they learn more.”
Sellars also teaches the Morgan-Scott CEO program which has 20 students. This program meets from 7:30 to 8:50 in the morning followed by Greene-Calhoun from 10:30 a.m. to noon.
The breakdown of students in the program are: Carrollton, 11; North Greene, 6; Greenfield, 1 and Calhoun 4.