Entrepreneurial green light unleashes creativity among high school students

Two young men decked out in dark suits step up with confidence to discuss their entrepreneurial ideas. Chad Goldstein wants to make and market a more ergonomic computer keyboard, something to enhance the comforts of the desk job. The other, Daniel Palkovic, is convinced he can develop an App for categorizing CDs, DVDs, and other personal items for a “home library” of sorts. Both are wearing enthusiasm on their faces – the by-product of an Effingham, Ill. county-wide, high school program poised to go nationwide.

Initiated by Jack Schultz, author of BoomTown USA, along with education and community leaders, this new program known in short as CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities), is an educational endeavor that seeks to change the way America’s youths are thinking, making them more adept at controlling their futures. The mission of the CEO class is to prepare youths to be responsible, enterprising individuals who become entrepreneurs or entrepreneurial thinkers and contribute to the economic development and sustainability of their community. Now in its fourth year, student and community interest is high, and becoming one of the 20-25 selected for the elective course is coveted.

Instructor Craig Lindvahl is empowering students daily. His ideas are practical, but not universal when it comes to the educational community. Institutions are very good at the concept of “teaching what you have to know,” he says.

“I want students growing up to say, ‘this is what I want to know.’ ”

The current system of teaching dates back to the 1600s and the world spends billions of dollars trying to make a rather mind-numbing approach work, Lindvahl says. It starts out in kindergarten or first grade.

“We have a machine that produces kids,” he says, explaining that their knowledge base is tempered or confined. Very young children find out that if they make mistakes there are penalties.

“By second grade, we develop a fear of asking questions. We say we want kids who are creative, but we have a system that doesn’t encourage discovery,” he says.

In addition, while information they’re taught is valid, Lindvahl believes society has progressed beyond the basics and that students can excel in creativity because of the tools available to them. He points to the Internet, a “vessel” of nearly the entire knowledge that man has attained. Then he relates that to conventional testing in schools.

“Should we be testing for what students can find out (look up) in three seconds?” Lindvahl thinks there are better ways to challenge students that removes the limits on learning.

Enter the CEO program. A rigorous application process, involving personal statements, interviews, and recommendations, eventually narrows the many junior and senior candidates to a fortunate 20-25. Class starts promptly at 7:30 a.m., but not in a classroom. Instead, the students meet in area businesses and visit more than 40 other community businesses during the school year. In addition, 50 to 60 guest speakers share management insight and leadership perspectives with the students and each student is matched with a mentor from the business community and a CEO class alumni.

Early in the year, as student Lauren Horn explained, they identify their personal strengths and are given a color badge to wear to help them pair up in appropriate teams that contribute to success. For instance, orange identifies an enthusiast, yellow is for the organizer, blue is the caring, keep everyone happy kind-of-person, and those identified as green are the problem solvers.

As the year progresses, students in CEO work together as a group on a business venture, earning and investing “real dollars” to make it happen. The class business will culminate this month as students produce a one-night-only “murder mystery” on Jan. 15 at the Firefly Grill, an Effingham “hot spot” restaurant. The students hire the actors, promote the show, sell the tickets and do all the event planning. The instructors are in place only to observe while the students make it happen.

Lindvahl says the project and the concept are in keeping with his educational goals for students. “Their self-confidence comes from their work. For some, this is their first opportunity to own their own work and behavior,” he says.

The class expectations are measured in large by two questions: Is it your best work? Is it on time? – two things that make a CEO effective.

As the school year progresses, each student will create and execute his or her own business, effectively acting as the CEO, utilizing all the knowledge attained from learning from actual CEOs of local, regional, national, and international companies. Ideally, among measurable results of the program, Effingham County CEO students will attend college and then return home to grow and contribute to Effingham’s business community.

An incentive awaits them. An anonymous donor has established a $100,000 angel investment fund where CEO alumni can seek startup funds for their own businesses.

Schultz believes this educational program is a huge endeavor in helping smaller towns become those BoomTown communities of which he writes.

“I think it can be transformative for the communities, to create the jobs and opportunities for the 21st century,” Schultz says. When Schultz authored his book, BoomTown USA in 2004, he ranked measures by which a town could develop itself, placing the encouragement of an entrepreneurial approach as number five on the list. He has changed his opinion, and would now rank that effort much higher, to number one or two on the list.

Soon the concept will be tested. The earliest students are beginning to finish college. Will they work for someone else as entrepreneurial thinkers or start their own businesses in their hometown? That’s yet to be seen, but either way their lives are changed for the better, evidenced by their exuberance and confidence.

Faith Wendte shares the changes she has undergone – a mental metamorphosis of sorts. Once terribly shy, she can now volunteer to speak to an audience. “I’ve definitely become more confident. My self-esteem is higher,” she says. And she feels like she belongs to a very unique group.

“We were told we would eventually become a family … we have truly become a family and I think we always will be.”

Lindvahl says Wendte’s changes are not unique and that she will be well-served by them.

“Business is 90 percent people skills and 10 percent technical business skills.”

Lindvahl says this one program
can help youths throughout the nation; that it will work in nearly
any community.

“CEO is about creating a learning environment where kids can learn, explore and discover, both by themselves and with the guidance of business leaders,” Lindvahl says, “When you do that, amazing things happen, people are transformed and communities change.”

In his partnering role as the executive director of the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship, Lindvahl mentors fellow outstanding educators and is assisting LaSalle-Peru with its new CEO program. Significant interest in CEO is building as communities from around the region begin to understand this unique educational and economic development opportunity.

Interested in bringing CEO to your town? For more information about the program contact Lindvahl at clindvahl@effinghamceo.com