By Lindsey Ziliak Kokomo Tribune
---- — Seven area school districts are hoping to soon launch an entrepreneurship program that challenges students to create their own businesses to solve community problems.
Kokomo School Corp. Superintendent Jeff Hauswald just submitted the application to become a part of the Illinois-based Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities program that launched five years ago.
“It’s been highly successful,” he said.
He should know within a month if the Kokomo area was chosen. About 20 different school districts across the country have applied for one of four available spots, he said.
Businesses, organizations and schools throughout the area are already on board with the project and are hoping this area is chosen, Hauswald said.
“This class is very valuable,” he said. “What our students learn this year may provide jobs. We may be working for them some day. Economically speaking, our students can help grow our economy with their business ventures.”
It’s a program that’s funded by business investors and is open to high school juniors and seniors. About 20 students are selected through a rigorous application process.
Here it would be available to students in Western, Eastern Howard, Taylor, Tri-Central, Northwestern, Kokomo and Southeastern schools as well as any schools that participate in the Kokomo Area Career Center.
A two-credit class would meet for about two hours every day with area businesses serving as the classrooms. Students would visit dozens of businesses, industries and government operations during the year, the superintendent said.
They would learn about things like creating business plans and managing finances.
Every student would then be challenged to create his or her own business, and they would have a mentor from the business community to help them.
Community First Bank CEO Mike Stegall said he believes the community needs this program. The more he learned about it, the more passionate he became.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m jaded,” he said. “This is kind of knock-your-socks-off impressive.”
He saw a presentation on the program last month. The program’s director was talking about kids who graduated from it.
One teen’s life ambition was to work in his dad’s welding shop. He had no plans to go to college.
Then he was selected for the entrepreneurship program and developed a business retrofitting vehicles to burn alternative fuels like propane and natural gas.
When he left high school, he went on to college and continued operating that business.
Stegall said that impressed him.
“At the bank, we get lots of people who come in with business ideas,” he said. “I don’t see that [level of professionalism] from a lot of older people who’ve been around much longer.”
Those kinds of go-getters could do great things in the Kokomo area, he said.
Many people think the way to grow an economy is to convince big businesses to relocate here, Stegall said. His years of experience in economic development have taught him otherwise.
“That’s the hardest and least effective way,” he said.
The best way to stimulate the local economy is to get local people to create businesses here, he said. That’s the whole goal of this program.
Hauswald said it’s a great way to get students invested in their local community — something that might prompt them to settle here one day instead of moving away.
“It helps our students learn about the needs in the community, the demographics in the community and to be an active part of making the community a better place,” he said.
Program officials told Stegall that many graduates stay in the area.
They surveyed one class before and after taking the entrepreneurship course. Before it started, only two or three students said they were interested in staying in their community long term, Stegall said. But after starting their businesses, 16 said they intended to stay.
Stegall said the next step is finding 40 or 50 businesses willing to donate $1,000 a year for three years to fund the program.
Much of that will be used as seed money to help teens start their businesses.
Community Foundation of Howard County has already committed $40,000 to help fund a teacher and supplies.
Stegall said he’s sure there will be more than 50 regional businesses eager to join this project. It’s not a hard sell, he said.
“It’s probably one of the most significant opportunities the community has had in quite some time,” he said. “It’s education outside of the box. It’s a new way of thinking.”
Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at email@example.com