The acclaimed Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities program build’s the business leaders of tomorrow by introducing high school students to the area’s successful business leaders of today.
From modest beginnings in Effingham County eight years ago, the CEO program has grown to include 37 classes in 35 geographic regions under the umbrella of the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship.
But like many successful programs, CEO began a with tiny spark — a conversation more than a decade ago between Effingham High School student Austin Brooks and Agracel founder Jack Schultz, who knows a thing or two about starting a business.
Brooks, a 2006 EHS grad, says Schultz was always somebody he wanted to meet.
“He was a prominent businessman in the community, and everybody had a story about him,” Brooks said on a video published on the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship website. “I wanted to have a conversation with this leader I greatly respected.”
Brooks’ multimedia teachers, Craig Lindvahl and Joe Fatheree, encouraged the young fellow to seek out Schultz.
“We spoke for an hour and I left with a profound sense that I, too, could one day become a leader in my community,” Brooks said. “Our conversation helped me to realize that our role models are just like us — that they were once students too, with role models of their own and their own unique dreams for attaining success.”
Brooks, now a documentary film producer in the Saint Louis area, said he has always been wired as the type of person who likes to meet new people from various walks of life.
“As a high school kid, I never met a stranger,” he said.
Lindvahl said on the video it was fitting that someone like Brooks generated the idea that led to CEO.
“Austin is a meeter, a connector and a communicator, so it made sense that a kid generated this idea,” he said.
Lindvahl began the program in the fall of 2008. He said its interactive nature fit in with the way he and Fatheree had been teaching for years.
It didn’t take long for other people to hear about the program.
“By the second year of the program, we were getting a lot of inquiries,” Lindvahl said.
The program began expanding into other districts by 2011, growing to five classes in Illinois and Indiana by 2013. The following year, some of the nine new CEO classes were in Minnesota.
Last fall, CEO expanded into 30 classes, including some in the state of Missouri.
The 37 far-flung classes this year include one in Routt County, Colorado, where the largest city is Steamboat Springs.
Marty Lamansky, director of teaching and learning in the Steamboat Springs School District, said Karen Wolters — who splits time between Effingham and Steamboat Springs — put together a group of Routt County business leaders and hosted an informational event.
After the event, Lamansky said, he and a colleague had a conversation about whether CEO would be a good fit for Routt County.
“We’re always trying to expand opportunities for our students,” Lamansky said. “We also have a robust work-based learning program and we saw CEO as a way to enhance that.”
The Routt County CEO program has 16 students in its first year, though more than 30 students applied for the program. Lamansky said the program appears to be well-received.
“We have yet to hear a negative word,” he said.
While Lindvahl retired from teaching several years ago to lead the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship, the Effingham County CEO program has expanded to two classes under facilitators Kent Probst of Teutopolis and Kristy Sayers of Beecher City.
Probst said the quality that often sets CEO students apart from their peers is initiative.
“The common thread is that these kids are self-starters,” Probst said. “These are young adults who want to succeed and be successful.”
CEO students are required to dress businesslike, with no school shirts and no jeans. Some current students say the reputation of the class has grown over the years.
“I’ve always been interested in something like this and wanted to be a part of it,” said Teutopolis High School student Maria Vonderheide.
“I like to push myself,” added Donovan Hammer of St. Anthony High School. “I am interested in the Effingham community and wanted to learn more about it.”
Recent CEO alumnus CJ Schmidt said the program’s reputation is such that he was excited just to be selected.
“Imagine you are applying for your dream college, and you write down everything that you are proud of; the biggest projects and goals,” Schmidt said.
“Now fast toward a couple of weeks. You have received a letter in the mail from your dream college; you rip open the letter and start reading. Moments pass and next thing you know you are jumping up and down with joy and hugging your parents.
“That is how much this program meant to me from the very beginning; that the Effingham community sees current and future success in me!” Schmidt added.
The program helped him develop a sense of self-awareness.
“Not only did the program help me prove to myself that I am successful, it also showed the impact that I have, and not to be afraid to lead the way to your version of success,” Schmidt said.
A parent of past and present CEO students said the program has changed the lives of two of her children.
“We’ve witnessed first hand how the CEO classes affect the way our children see their futures and jump start their ideas into realities,” said Anita Deters of Teutopolis.
Deters’ daughter Celeste was a member of the program in 2012-13, while son Christian is currently enrolled in the class.
“I believe the CEO class is a tremendous opportunity for area high school students,” Deters added. “These young adults are introduced to so many opportunities and successful entrepreneurs in the business field that they begin to see that Effingham County is a viable place to start their careers after college.”
“For my daughter, Celeste, I think it affected the way she approached new situations and helped her make sound decisions all across the board,” the mother added.
“She has always been a determined individual, but the CEO class gave her that extra boost of self confidence to pursue her goals and dreams.”
Anita Deters said son Christian is already benefitting from the program, even though the school year is young.
“I believe Christian really enjoys meeting the businessmen and women in the area and listening to their startup stories,” she said. “He is discovering that there are a lot of great thinkers out there and will put into practice much of what he is learning in CEO as he begins his career.”
Bill Grimes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-347-7151, x132.