CEO program completes successful first year

WILLMAR -- The Kandiyohi County CEO trade show looked like most others -- decorated booths, chances to sign up for drawings or play games for prizes, dishes of free candy, offers for discounts, with business owners ready to hand out business card...

Jase Peterson
ACGC senior Jase Peterson prepares samples of Simmental beef Wednesday at the Kandiyohi County CEO Trade Show at MinnWest Technology Campus. His new business, called Peterson Farms and Ranch, is near Lake Lillian and offers freezer meats up to a whole cow. (TRIBUNE/Rand Middleton)

WILLMAR - The Kandiyohi County CEO trade show looked like most others - decorated booths, chances to sign up for drawings or play games for prizes, dishes of free candy, offers for discounts, with business owners ready to hand out business cards and shake hands.
What set the show apart was the young age of the business owners in the Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities show.
The 14 juniors and seniors from three area high schools spent the past school year in an entrepreneurship program supported by area businesses.
This has been the program’s first year. The students applied for it a year ago and were chosen from the Willmar, New London-Spicer and Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City school districts.
Students met and mingled with a number of business leaders in the area. They toured businesses and listened to speakers with a variety of backgrounds. Most importantly, they were able to ask questions. In the first part of the year, the students started a class business to raise seed money for their own businesses. In the second part of the year, each student started his or her own business. Local business people also acted as mentors.
Program facilitator Tyler Gehrking, a Willmar teacher, said he knew the program had worked in other areas, but he was a little nervous when the year started and the class entered uncharted territory.
“Based on what we got on Wednesday, I just can’t be anything but proud for them,” he said. Last week. Though he was their guide, he said, “I was not a major player in this whole thing.”
The major changes from a regular high school class were the environment and the sources of information, he said.
In his mind, “100 percent of credit goes to our local businesses because they supplied the environment and the information,” Gehrking said. “We were destined for success.”
Business people who attended the trade show, told him they were impressed with the students’ speaking abilities and ability to make eye contact and answer detailed questions about their businesses, Gehrking said.
One person told him that he was less nervous about the future, when he saw the caliber of the young people in the program.
Dave Baker, a Willmar business owner and a state legislator, was one of the class’s first speakers last fall and met with them a few others times through the year.
He said the level of maturity the students displayed at the trade show was remarkable to him. He used the same word Gehrking had - “proud.”
Baker said he watched the students change even over a few weeks of attending Friday morning chamber gatherings. At first, they were quiet, but in a fairly short time, they were shaking hands and engaging with people other than their classmates.
“That kind of exposure for these young kids is valuable,” he said. He also liked the collaboration between three school districts.
“I can see this doing amazing things for Greater Minnesota,” Baker said. Developing young entrepreneurs is increasingly important for rural areas, he said, calling it “economic development at its finest.”
Baker said he is interested in talking to other rural legislators about starting the program in other districts. “I think this is exactly what smaller towns need,” he said.
After the trade show, Gehrking said he asked students what advice they would offer young entrepreneurs.
Josiah Olson, who started a personal organizing business, said they should know that talking about things is a lot different than actually doing things, Gehrking said...
The class gave the students the chance to do things, Gehrking said.
“Amidst that realism comes a risk of failure,” he said. “It gives kids a taste of real life.”
The goal of the class is to encourage students to try things and not to get bogged down in worrying about mistakes. Making mistakes is not failure, he said, but quitting is.
Gehrking summed up his year: “It was a blast. It was painful at times, but that’s because it’s real. If it doesn’t hurt a little bit, you’re not doing it right, I think. If it wasn’t painful for them every once in a while, they weren’t actually growing and changing.“


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In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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