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High School CEOs
A Willmar high school class teaches students about practical business and creates strong relationships with local businesses
October 2018
A Willmar high school class teaches students about practical business and creates strong relationships with local businesses
A Willmar high school class teaches students about practical business and creates strong relationships with local businesses.

Tyler Gehrking was in his sixth year of teaching at Willmar High School when his principal asked him to use his lunch hour to video-record a meeting by Craig Lindvahl, an Illinois-based educator. Lindvahl founded the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship, an education group that creates local coalitions of business leaders and schools to give high school students hands-on experience about what it means to be an entrepreneur.

The meeting of some 80 business people, educators, and community leaders was organized by Gary Geiger, a local banker and manufacturer, who had heard Lindvahl speak when he was a board member of the Southwest Initiative Foundation.

Gehrking, a life-long resident of Willmar and himself a graduate of Willmar High School, was blown away by Lindvahl’s Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (CEO) program, in which students sign up for a year-long before-school program that is taught entirely offsite by local business people, and wholly underwritten by them.

Students also learn from guest speakers, participate in a business class, write business plans, and start and operate their own businesses. “Business concepts learned through the experiential CEO class are critical,” says the CEO curriculum. “The 21st-century skills of problem solving, teamwork, self-motivation, responsibility, higher-order thinking, communication, and inquiry are at the heart of a student’s development throughout the course.”

Lindvahl struck a chord with his audience, who voted enthusiastically to organize a CEO program for Willmar. School Superintendent Jeff Holm went so far as to suggest Gehrking run the program. “When your superintendent does that, you just say yes,” Gehrking said.

“Being a teacher, I thought entrepreneurship was a boring business term, and I was not interested in any way. My idea of it was learning from a textbook and writing a business plan—nothing at all what the reality is.”

Gehrking’s class of 22 students typically meets Monday through Friday during the school year from 7:15 a.m. to 8:45 a.m., well before the start of the first-hour class. They meet at host businesses and divide their time between touring businesses, hearing from guest speakers or working on projects.

“I don’t actually teach anything related to entrepreneurship outside of professionalism and communication—how you should leave a voice mail and how you should shake hands,” Gehrking says. “All of the technical stuff about running a business and all of the project work is taught by our industry leaders.” The class culminates as students work with their business contacts to conceive and start their own businesses.

The class is underwritten by $1,000 contributions from 54 local business investors, part of which supports Gehrking. The school district pays nothing. Those businesses also pledge to help mentor students, teach classes, and provide company tours.

There is no set curriculum, Gehrking says. “Our job is to prepare kids for the real world. We let them learn, network with these professionals, and then discover how their skill sets fit their learning. Pooling all of the different skill sets together, we have a pretty cool learning experience for our kids throughout the entire school year.”

“Anyone and everyone can apply to get in, and there are no GPA requirements. We also don’t have any prerequisites; we just want students inclined to succeed in an environment that requires entrepreneurial thinking.”

In the first year, Gehrking accepted all 15 students who applied. In the class that began this September, he was able to take only 22 of the 50 who applied. “We don’t really have to do any marketing or selling to students anymore,” Gehrking says. “The experience just kind of speaks for itself.”

A serious value of the program is that students realize they don’t have to leave home to have a satisfying career. On the second day of his first-year class, Gehrking polled class members on whether they expected to live and work as adults in Kandiyohi County. Ninety percent said no. On the last day of class, he asked the same question and discovered startling reversal: Ninety percent said yes.  

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