By Pat Pratt
Students, investors, parents and members of the community who support the Collinsville-Triad-Maryville CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities) came together Thursday for breakfast to recognize graduates and take part in some networking before Summer break.
The CEO program is a collective of high school seniors from local schools with aspirations of entrepreneurship. Students in the program form their own business plan and, with the support of the many local businesses also involved in the program who provide mentorship, tutoring and advice, turn those dreams into reality.
Wendy Symer is a board chair for the CEO program and the owner and president of WLS Consulting. She said students in the program arrive at school early dressed for success with a goal of learning the intricacies of the business world.
“These are kids that don’t necessarily know each other,” Symer said. “In some cases they are from rival schools and now they have to come together and learn to work together. It’s very cool. They come together in the first semester and do a class business where they make enough money to tap into as a resource, kind of like the bank if you will for their individual businesses, which they start working on in the fall.”
Luis Huerta is one of the students in the CEO Class of 2023. His family owns and operates several businesses in the Metro East. After seeing how much his father and other extended family members appreciated the freedom that comes with ownership, he decided to focus on honing his own entrepreneurial skills.
“My dad owns a landscaping business along with my uncle,” Huerta said. “My uncle owns a granite countertop company. So I was always around the businesses and involved and I like the idea of not having anybody tell you what to do. My dad, whenever he needed a day off to run to an appointment, he would just not go in. He didn’t have a boss that told him, ‘Hey, you can’t do that.’”
The program would not be possible without the many businesses who offer their time, training funding and other mentorship resources to the students in the program, as well as the parents who support the students.
Bob Eaton is the CEO of Day & Night Solar, a national company based in Collinsville. He says he became intrigued with the CEO program some years ago when an associate brought it to his attention and decided to get involved.
“After seeing these kids over the last several years, I thought what if I had something like this in high school,” Eaton said. “I thought it was interesting what they were learning and, selfishly, maybe there’s some recruitment we can do for our business. I got to know some of the people behind it, some of the leaders and decided to not only financially invest, but become a mentor as well and it is quite rewarding.”
Jason Gillihan is the Project Manager for Gillihan Concrete, which serves the Metro east, and is also the father of 2023 CEO graduate James Gillihan. He supports the program through mentorship and as an investor, saying he has seen firsthand the skills developed by his son.
“I think the program is important because it develops young adults into responsible and capable members of society, where they are willing to interact with businesses and adults and mature into functioning citizens,” Gillihan said.
Gillihan also echoed the comments of Eaton regarding the program, saying he too wishes there would have been a more business-specific curriculum available when he was in high school.
“I realized I wanted to be a part of my family owned business at that time, and I was perplexed there was no one encouraging me to learn the basics of business,” Gillihan said. “I was pressured to go to college and get a degree, and if you didn’t you weren’t going to succeed. Since then, I’ve always wanted to find a way, whether through the trades or something else, a way to help high schoolers figure out there are other options and this program fits the bill.”
Kristin Kneedler is a mentor and the Founder and Executive Director of Counselors Associates Ltd, a counseling provider which has several area locations including Troy. Her daughter Baylie Roberts is a member of the CEO 2023 graduating class and Kneedler says the growth she has seen has been amazing.
“It’s absolutely helped my daughter on her path,” Kneedler said. “She’s always been ambitious and kind and hardworking, but I think it took those raw shills she already had and gave her some sharper edges. It really improved her public speaking experience and ability to communicate with adults toe-to-toe.”
Another added benefit of the program, Kneedler and many investors and people in attendance noted, was that the CEO program shows students they don’t have to leave home after school and seek employment at a distance, but rather a successful business could form here in the Metro East.
That could be a boon to local communities, as talent retention among young people is a pertinent issue affecting communities, especially in the realm of commerce and professional services.
“It also really ties the students back into the communities and makes them kind of impressed and inspired by the communities they live in,” Kneedler said. “Where it used to be, ‘what can I get out of it,’ it’s now ‘what can I give back?’”
The event Thursday was held at Truck Centers Inc. in Troy, which is also an investor. Sales Executive Trevor Yates also agreed with Kneedler’s statement, saying that the company also hopes no matter what path the students choose, they decide to come back to the area they call home.
“We see it as an opportunity to promote not only the CEO program, but the businesses within the community,” Yates said. “We are trying to keep the kids here. If they go away to school, I want them to come back and work in the community.”
CEO is also providing students an alternative mode of learning where traditional post-secondary institutions might not pique theory interest. Troy Mayor David Nonn was at the event Thursday, the city being an investor in the program, and touched on that issue.
“We believe that this is an alternative way to educate yourself,” Nonn said. “There are a lot of kids who aren’t necessarily straight-A students that benefit greatly from this program and they have been wildly successful in different endeavors.”