By Ariana R. Cherry
Presently, with an economy that is uncertain and going through tough times, it is more important than ever to encourage the development of small businesses or to educate young minds who have an interest for business. The development of businesses and their success are the steam behind what makes a great economy. Here in the ALAH school district, we have the means to create a learning atmosphere with business-like minds through the Illini Prairie CEO Class (previously known as the Douglas County CEO Program).
The mission of the Illini Prairie CEO Class is “to prepare our youth to be responsible, enterprising individuals who become entrepreneurs or entrepreneurial thinkers and contribute to the economic development and sustainability of Douglas County.” As quoted in last year’s CEO Class Report, “It is our hope that these young entrepreneurs will follow in the footsteps of many of the entrepreneurs in our community and will reside in or return to run their business, raise their families and give back to their community.”
This year, the Illini Prairie CEO is excited to add Sullivan High School to its already growing list of participating schools that include Arcola, Arthur Lovington-Atwood Hammond, and Tuscola.
“It has been a big perk of bringing them on. We get a whole new pool of businesses we can reach out to or they can become investors. Sullivan’s economic situation is really great-big time manufacturing, healthcare businesses, downtown square and the little theatre,” Mac Condill (Class Facilitator), quoted. “They’ve been great already! We have two students from there, the support of the school administration and Laurrie Minor (Director of Sullivan Chamber and Economic Development) has done great at engaging businesses and investors,” he added.
For this year’s class, there are 14 students. Last year’s class had to move through some of the new challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic brought and this year’s class is weathering through them just the same and plan to still make the program a great success despite these uncertain times. For the time being, the class is doing all of their business visits remotely through platforms such as Zoom. Condill is still hoping that there could be business field trips in the future, but it will be the board’s decision if it would be made possible. With the start of the school year, Condill stated that the class has mostly just been getting to know each other and starting to discuss “big picture stuff.” “We are trying to continue on as we normally would with the use of technology and trying to make the best out of the current situation. It has been a great learning tool,” he said.
Another great addition to this year’s program is its Co-Facilitator, Christi Mulligan of Arcola. “Because it is busy in the fall and spring at The Great Pumpkin Patch with planting and everything, it would be hard to take the whole program on and I still wanted to be a part of it. So now the program has a dual facilitator. Christi is also one more person the students can have as a mentor,” Condill explained. “Christi is tech-savvy and works remote with her businesses. Since we are remote through the middle of October at this point, she is ahead of all that,” he added.
“Since his businesses are busier during certain seasons compared to others, I am here to “hold down the fort” while he is planting, harvesting and providing all the amazing opportunities for local families and tourists alike,” said Mulligan.
“Essentially, we share the calendar based on his needs and then, we split the roles based on strengths that we both bring to the table. Being that I have a big technology- based background and have worked remotely since 2005 (full-time since 2008), I can bring support to him with some of those types of requirements. Plus, I am here to show students that you can live in this amazing area of ours and still work for or with some of the “mega-enterprises” like Microsoft, Apple, Google, etc.,” she informed.
Mulligan continued on to explain. “Students certainly do not realize what true remote capabilities exist (even before/after COVID passes). Mac, on the other hand, has been a part of this community most of his life and so, his connections with local businesses is key to letting students see what businesses are rooted here in the community that they may not know about and/or realize they even exist. It’s all about opening students to the opportunities that exist right out of their back doors,” she said.
Even though the class is dealing with the challenge of the pandemic, there are still plenty of plans and goals in store. “Beyond showing kids all that the world can offer them even while they are living here in the awesome communities of ALAH, Tuscola, Arcola and Sullivan, we are striving to also let the students see all the types of businesses and jobs within those businesses that exist,” Mulligan stated. “We want to really encourage students to explore their interests, ask questions of business owners or employees, etc. in order to figure out what they want to potentially do beyond high school. It’s also equally important for them to figure out what they don’t want to do,” she added.
Mulligan also stated that they wanted to focus on building habits that employers will find important should they hire the students someday. They are teaching skills such as arriving early to work (and not just “on-time”), being prepared with all of their materials, communicating early and often regarding their work or when things may not be going well and partnering with team members to brainstorm solutions to a problem and then working together to follow through on whatever plan is created. “Students should exit this class being extremely marketable to any employer,” quoted Mulligan.
Besides the students being “marketable,” after exiting the class, they also are already learning how to deal with business when life brings them challenges (such as this pandemic). “There is probably no other class in this group’s history that has learned so many tech tools this early or what it is like to develop with a fully-remote team. These are things that will again, set them apart from their peers, and show that they already have the habits built to make themselves fully functioning regardless of the situation,” said Mulligan.
The 2020-2021 class includes Dillan Alcorn, Tuscola; Aiden Beachy, Tuscola; Preston Brown, Tuscola; Ilusha Budd, Arcola; Kendra De La Garza, Arcola; Jake Dyer, Tuscola; Coen Foster, Sullivan; Allison Gordon, Tuscola; Alexa Houser, Sullivan; Graciela Leal, Arcola; Jorge Macias, Arcola; Krish Patel, Arcola; Carlie Seip, Tuscola, and Mackenzie Wright, Arthur Lovington Atwood Hammond.
Not only does Illini Prairie CEO offer opportunities for students, but it also offers opportunities for businesses and business owners, guest speaking opportunities and the chance to help educate young minds. Mulligan said that she and Condill are “always looking to align with more area businesses to do virtual tours/guest speakers to join them for the short term or hopefully eventual face-to-face sessions. Those who are interested may contact them by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org that includes their name, business name and phone number and either Mulligan or Condill will reach out to you right away. “It is so important for the students to hear your story, to hear how you and/or your business came to be in this area, etc. Remember, you just might be the spark for one of these students, so please don’t hesitate to let us know if you’re willing to share!” Mulligan quoted.