It is 7:20 a.m. and 45 high school seniors file into a training room at Sikich. Some of the students razz each other about an upcoming soccer game; others grab a bottle of water or Pop Tart, laughing and engaging with each other. Their strong connection to each other is obvious. That might be visible in many classes in any high school, but these students come from different Sangamon County schools. Arriving early every weekday from August through May, they are part of Sangamon CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities), learning about business and entrepreneurship.

Nick Phalen, a student from Sacred Heart-Griffin High School who hopes to go into business, said, “Everyone wants to be here and works hard; we are diverse but here for the same reason.”

Now in its seventh year, the format and offerings have evolved. A new nonprofit called iVenturED now oversees Sangamon CEO, and this year a partnership with District 186 offers juniors an opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship through business classes at their home schools.

Nabih Elhajj, an instructor for the past five years for Sangamon CEO and the director of iVenturED for the past two years, explains, “We wanted to expand the number of students who can learn about business and entrepreneurship. Sangamon CEO is really limited to 45 students, due to constraints on meeting space. The premise is to give youth the tools to think as an entrepreneur, and we hope they will stay in the area and pursue their own business ideas. Now working with business teachers, we have expanded. Juniors are experiencing some of the same information in their business classes. Those students might decide to apply for Sangamon CEO in their senior year.”


Nabih Elhajj is the instructor for Sangamon CEO.


Seniors in Sangamon CEO go to host sites to receive class instruction and to listen to speakers; they make site visits to meet employees and tour facilities. The format of teams has changed from the initial structure. Students are now assigned to several different teams so that they learn about each other and ways to deal with various personalities.

Kasra Nassirpour from Pleasant Plains High School said that the class has helped him learn to relate to others. “The first day was awkward; we had to introduce ourselves and talk to each person, not something we are used to doing. That helped us learn business behavior,” he said. “I thought I wanted to go into neurology, but now I am thinking of the business side of medicine.” Lanphier High School senior Lezhauria Williams said, “I wanted the opportunity for networking and getting out of my comfort zone, which is happening.”

Each team interacts with a business and reviews case studies to find solutions to business issues. In a separate team, students participate in a business simulation, learning how to launch a company by looking at many facets including cost, productivity, hiring, office space and more.

As a class, they will plan, prepare and implement a fundraiser to be held in December, using a business model. Then in the spring, each student must develop an idea for a business which culminates in an event modeled after the TV show “Shark Tank.” The winner is awarded money to launch the business.

At one of the early morning sessions, Elhajj projects a chart on a large screen which shows the various teams within the class and the progress of their simulated businesses in areas of market share, worker productivity, operating capacity, etc. One team has achieved 100% in worker productivity, and Elhajj asks how they accomplished that. One student shares, “We increased salaries and added benefits so that our workers are happy; if they are happy, they work better.” Elhajj then explains the connection of worker productivity to the overall success of a company.

Following the discussion, the owner of Three Twigs Bakery, Emily Lewis, shares her own journey in business and the essential areas that must be considered in starting a business. The students are quick to identify her points in a follow-up discussion: pacing, pricing, seeking opportunities and following a passion. Many of the participating students agree that they applied for the program because they wanted to expand their knowledge about business, build skills and find ways to pursue their own interests. Avia Wang from Springfield High School said she plans to pursue international studies and calls the program “more than I expected; it brings out inner qualities and this is where I can be myself.” Macy Rhodes from Auburn High School wants to be an elementary school teacher, but even though she doesn’t plan to pursue a career in business she credits the program with helping her think creatively and learn life skills. The students also said the program is unique because it is hands-on, demands interaction and provides many activities and experiences that are not often part of the school curriculum.

In addition to Elhajj, Kate Lingoni serves as the program coordinator, arranging site visits and speakers.

Elhajj says, “The amazing thing to watch in this program is the change the students see in themselves. We help them find their passion and then find the route to pursue it.”


Cinda Ackerman Klickna taught for many years and is always impressed by the motivation and intelligence of our youth.