Dickinson County Program Provides a Peek behind the Curtains of Business

Monday, December 20, 2021

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Running a business has its perks, from being your own boss to the satisfaction of helping a community. But the hard work behind a successful business is often hidden from the view of the budding entrepreneur. In Dickinson County, one program gives high school students that education with a glimpse of entrepreneurial life. 

“Students have the opportunity to pull back the curtain of running a business with the CEO Program,” said Justin Coup, Dickinson County CEO Program board member and superintendent of the Solomon Unified School District. “An owner does not always have that chance amidst the daily tasks of running a business.”

The Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (CEO) Program is the standard for entrepreneurship education in the country, developed by the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship. The CEO Program is designed to prepare youth to develop entrepreneurial thinking and contribute to their community’s economic development. With partnerships from local businesses, high school students are immersed in real-life learning experiences.

CEO Program

In 2020, local business and education leaders teamed up to offer the Dickinson County CEO Program to local high school students. Students from Abilene and Chapman High Schools participated in that inaugural year, with students added from Herington and Hope High Schools this year. The program is a year-long, two-credit high school course meeting every weekday. Students mostly meet at host sites throughout the county, with three main instructional pieces.

Dickinson County CEO Program“Students work outside of a traditional classroom setting and have the opportunity to learn from real-world business professionals and hands-on learning experiences,” said Brandy Gray, 2021-22 Dickinson County CEO facilitator.

The CEO course introduces entrepreneurial concepts through real-world business experiences. Students visit businesses across Dickinson County to get a behind-the-scenes look at different industries and business concepts. Business owners and speakers share insights into their company, entrepreneurial experiences and business concepts. 

Students also partake in at least three business ventures to practice and refine their business skills. The class begins the school year with a "Badge Business," which challenges them to reach out and find resources. During the "Class Business," students develop a business as a team, requiring them to work together to coordinate many different business functions including sales, marketing, accounting, operations and more. Finally, each student is challenged to develop their own business with an "Individual Business” capstone project. Students present their learnings at two trade shows in the spring, one in a location in the northern portion of Dickinson County and one in the south.

“Every business visit and venture is student-driven, so student participation and decision-making directly impacts their learning and success," said Gray "These real-world experiences and consequences push students outside of their comfort zone and it is remarkable to watch their growth throughout the year."

Originally from Dickinson County having attended Solomon High School, Gray, now a Financial Operations Manager with Supporting Strategies, is amazed by the support that the community provides to the CEO program. As a facilitator, Gray provides daily assistance and guidance to the students as needed. The CEO board of Dickinson County provides overarching guidance and business mentors meet one-on-one with students to provide personalized business guidance.  But it's the commitment of the nearly 40 businesses and individuals from across the County who invest $1,000 annually to ensure the stability of the program.

"The community involvement and support allows each day to be a new opportunity for our students to learn more about businesses and our local community while also developing their leadership and professional skills," said Gray.

Eye-opening experience

Joy Clemence was one of the students in the program last year as a junior at Abilene High School. She appreciated the ability to visit more than 50 businesses over the course of the year. The learning she gained from the CEO Program will serve her well as she hopes to attend Kansas State University to study either Business or Hospitality Management.

“I did not realize how many businesses, both large and small, were in our county,” she said. “They really opened my eyes to the diverse business opportunities right where I live.”

Clemence said the skills she developed during her time in the program will serve her well in the future.

“The experience definitely helped me step out of my shell,” she said. “I feel confident now in my ability to build relationships and network in the future.”

Clemence’s mentor, Shelly Crane, a broker/owner with Almost Home Realty of Abilene, saw that growth in Clemence and other students.

“These kids were timid at the beginning, but at the end, they were so much more confident and eager to speak with us,” she said. “They knew the mentors were there to support them and be lifelong cheerleaders for them.” 

Helpful to community

Crane’s participation as a mentor precipitated from her own experiences trying to start a business.

“I did not know where to begin when I wanted to start my business and the CEO Program is about giving our youth that knowledge,” she said. “As we educate our youth about what exists in their hometowns, it is exciting to think of them using their skills to help us grow our communities.”

Educators are consistently looking for experiences to inform students how to serve the global community. As rural communities seek to keep or bring in talented young adults, the program offers additional significance, said Coup.

“The CEO Program can help students understand they do not have to move to the coasts or large metropolitan areas to be successful,” he said.

While Clemence said it is too early to know if she would move back home after college, the CEO Program gave her the insight to know she could be successful in Dickinson County.

“Where I go after college is definitely up in the air, but I do know good things will happen for me if I do come home,” she said.

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