Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities

Here’s the lament we hear constantly from employers in Greater Minnesota: “We can’t find a skilled workforce—or grow as a community—because our kids can’t wait to leave town as soon as they finish high school.”

One Minnesota high school—Wright Technical Center in Buffalo—is tackling this challenge head-on. Wright Tech is a consortium of eight school districts in Wright and Sherburne Counties, including Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose, Monticello, Delano, Maple Lake, Annandale, Big Lake, St. Michael-Albertville, and Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted.

In 2015, Wright Tech launched a program called Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (CEO) using a model conceived by Illinois entrepreneur and educator Craig Lindvahl. Students in the program each start their own business.

To prepare, they work with mentors, tour area businesses and sit down the owners to learn what it’s like to launch and run a business. The students meet at local companies for an hour-and-a-half each day before the school day begins. In the last two years, CEO students have visited more than 100 businesses.

Nine students completed the CEO program last year, and four are still running the business they started.

Mark Lee, Wright Tech’s Work-Based Learning Coordinator, oversees the CEO program. “Every week—after we tour a business and sit down with the owner—I hear the same thing from students,” he says. “They say, ‘I’ve driven by that building my whole life, and I never knew what they do there. I didn’t know they make parts for the Space Shuttle, or medical devices,’ or whatever.’”

Through CEO, Lee says, students come to realize what great opportunities there are in their own community.

Last year, one CEO student dreamed of someday opening a bakery and coffee shop. In the CEO program, she started small, launching a cupcake and birthday cake business. Her mentor, who had a wedding-related business, donated a booth at a wedding expo and helped her to set it up. One bride ordered a cake, and was so thrilled with the student’s work that she praised her on social media. Soon other area brides were calling to order a wedding cake.

“The story went from ‘a high school girl making cupcakes in her kitchen’ to now renting a commercial kitchen,” says Lee. “She’s still baking birthday cakes, but she’s concentrating on wedding cakes, where there’s more money to be made.”

One of last year’s CEO students started a DJ business, while another created a grass-fed beef business. His future plans include founding an agriculture-related business that does field scouting with drones, among other things. Yet another student—who aspires to be a property manager—saved enough money to make a down-payment on his first, fixer-upper duplex. All these businesses are still in operation.

Ray Przekurat, Wright Tech’s director, says he sees two remarkable changes in the students who complete CEO.

First, “The growth of the students in this program is unbelievable,” he says. “At the beginning of the year, many can’t look you in the eye, can’t shake your hand. At the end of the year—at the trade show where they introduce their business to the public—they’re handing you their business card, telling you their business plan, and telling you what’s so great about Wright County and Sherburne Counties.”

How does this transformation take place?

“In CEO, we put a lot of emphasis on people skills,” explains Lee. “The students network at Rotary Club, at the Jaycees, Kiwanis, Lions, Business Networking International. They see business people networking there and they talk about their own businesses.”

“It’s easy to talk to people your own age,” he adds. “It’s harder to talk to adults. We talk about the ‘art of conversation,’ and what we call ‘intergenerational conversation’ with the students. We encourage them to ask questions—to have a couple of go-to questions and a follow-up question. For example, if the person you’re talking to owns a business, ask what its name is and what their biggest challenge is. Students who get practice at this end up mature and self-confident.”

CEO students have the opportunity to sit down with the leaders of companies like Whirltronics, in Buffalo, a top manufacturer of rotary lawnmower blades, and J & B Meats, the maker of No Name Steaks, in St. Michael.

“Business owners will talk about their own business journey,” says Lee.”They say things like, ‘I had an idea, I saw a need, I started in my garage or barn—I worked my regular job until it grew enough that I could step away.’  They tell students about the pitfalls to expect, about what they wished they had done differently.”

The second change Wright Tech leaders see in CEO students is the way their appreciation for their own communities grows. At the beginning of the school year, students are asked in a survey about their plans after high school.

“Ninety percent of them say, ‘I’m out of here, I don’t want to live around here, there’s nothing here,’” says Przekurat. “That’s normal for high school kids. But by the end of the year, that flip-flops. The kids say ‘I can’t believe all the companies that are here; I can’t believe all they make and do.’”

The business owners whom CEO students meet often encourage them to start their businesses in the area, says Lee. “They say, ‘we will support you; you’ve got a great network here.’”

What do CEO students do after high school? So far, about one-third attend a four-year college, one-third attend a two-year technical school, and one-third run their businesses or go to work, according to Lee.

CEO is only one of the 14 programs that Wright Tech offers students in the eight school districts it serves. About 700 students take classes in the school’s tech center and about 100 in its alternative learning program. Tech center students come for an hour-and-a half every day, and can take one class both junior and senior year. CEO students don’t meet at the school, but at area businesses.

Wright Tech’s technical programs focus on training kids for high-wage, in-demand occupations. They include automotive technology, which has a state-of-the-art, industry-equipped automotive shop; health care; and welding technology, where students work towards completing an American Welding Society certification. In the construction technology program, kids build a three-bedroom house. A licensed electrician and plumber are the only outside professionals involved, and the students work right alongside them.

“I’ve been told that Wright Tech is one of those ‘best-kept secrets,’” says Przekurat. “It shouldn’t be.”

Przekurat says last time he looked at the data, 31 percent of Minnesotans had graduated from a four-year college. In Wright County, it’s about 25 percent, he says. “That’s great,” he notes. “But my question is, what are we doing for the other 75 percent of our population?”

Wright Tech‘s high school CEO program isn’t the only one in Minnesota. The other two are in Kandiyohi County (the great video here demonstrates the poise and self-confidence that CEO students develop), and in Staples-Motley, which partners with Wadena-Deer Creek and Pillager. The Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship in Effingham, Illinois, which oversees the CEO program nationwide, requires that school districts form a consortium to operate a CEO program.

Businesses, not school districts, underwrite the programs’ costs. Wright Tech, for example, raised $70,000 to pay for its CEO program.

What Wright Tech and other schools using the CEO model are doing is great for both their kids and their communities. More Minnesota school districts should do the same.

Kathy Kersten is a senior fellow at Center of the American Experiment.