Franken's staff visits Willmar to learn about CEO program


WILLMAR — The Kandiyohi County CEO class could offer ideas for encouraging partnerships between businesses and schools, according to staff members of Sen. Al Franken.

Charles Sutton and Carson Ouellette visited with students and adults involved with the Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities class Thursday afternoon at the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar.

Four current and one former student told the staff members about the program, which gives students an outside-the-classroom education in business and the community.

Each year 20 juniors and seniors from Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City, New London-Spicer and Willmar school districts participate in the class. It meets at businesses in the community for 90 minutes five days a week throughout the school year. The classes tour area businesses and get to know business leaders in the community.

One of the goals is to acquaint young people with the area and the wide variety of businesses here, with the hope that they will decide to move back after college and possible start their own businesses.

It's a way to try to stem the tide of young people moving away to go to college and never moving back to their home area.

Sutton said Franken is interested in finding ways to narrow a "skills gap" that can make it difficult for businesses to find new employees qualified for job openings. Franken also wants to find good ways to expose students to career opportunities while they are still in school.

CEO teacher Tyler Gehrking said the program actually belongs to the students and the business investors involved with the program. He is there to guide them, offer technical assistance and "make sure they're not going horribly off course."

The students make seed money by selling advertising for their name badges and starting a class business to host a winter dinner. The seed money is available for each student to start his or her own business.

The class culminates with a spring trade show for the student businesses.

Gehrking called it "the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life."

Jim Sieben, president of NovaTech and MinnWest, said he enjoys seeing the difference in students from fall to spring: They grow from being shy and nervous to easily conversing with business owners in the community.

Business people in the community discuss how to get more programs like it going, Sieben said. "It really has to start with the businesses." His business was an early investor in the program. It seeks $1,000 each from investor businesses. This year, 54 businesses are investors.

Sara Carlson, director of the Willmar Area Community Foundation, the program's fiscal agent, said the goal is to reach 60 to 65 investors, so the program has a stronger financial position from year to year.

"We create an environment where it's safe to fail, because we've got their backs," she said. Gehrking and the students said they learn a lot from the freedom to make mistakes and keep going.

Franken's staff members praised the program and said they would report back to Franken about "this exciting partnership."

The staff has been traveling the state to look at innovative programs, Sutton said. They had heard about the CEO Program, but were glad to learn about it first hand, he added.