New Champaign schools' program has local pros mentoring high schoolers

New Champaign schools' program has local pros mentoring high schoolers

CHAMPAIGN — When you take 10 high school students with dreams of starting their own businesses and combine them with 10 local small-business owners, the hope is, you'll create 10 new, young business owners.

That's the goal, at least, with the new Young Entrepreneurship program that the Champaign schools and Illini for Kids are starting this semester. It has local entrepreneurs mentoring high school students, helping them plan and start successful businesses.

The program hosted a kickoff event Wednesday at M2 on Neil in Champaign, at which students from Champaign Central and Centennial high schools had a chance to tell their parents, teachers and business mentors about their business dreams.

Now in its first semester, the program includes five students from each high school.

Dan Ditchfield, a Horace Mann agent who is involved in Illini for Kids, said this is one program that stemmed from that organization's wish to get the community more involved with the Champaign schools.

Illini for Kids hosted a small conference with local business leaders and Champaign schools officials, he said. One question that came up was about how local business people could inspire students with entrepreneurial dreams.

Marc Changnon, the Champaign schools' district coordinator for career programs, said Champaign's high schools offer entrepreneurship classes, but he was excited by the prospect of pairing students with local business leaders.

"It's invaluable, the experience (the students) are going to get," he said Wednesday.

Changnon said teachers in career and technical education — which most people know as vocational education — got together with the members of Illini for Kids to flesh out the program.

They agreed on a system for students to apply, and Changnon wrote a handbook for the students and business people involved.

Young Entrepreneurs is an extracurricular activity, and mentors and students will meet about once a week. The entire group will meet on a monthly basis.

The mentors will help the students write full business plans and help them come up with solutions for business problems such as like marketing, legal issues and insurance, Changnon said.

He said he hopes students learn critical thinking, how to develop their own networks to help their businesses succeed and to ask for help. The program should give them a chance to apply what they've learned in school.

"I just keep coming back to, (it will allow) our students ... to experience what we hope the real world is like for them," he said.

Changnon said students who are juniors this year can continue with the program this year, and he's hoping seniors stay in touch with their business mentors.

"We hope these are some lifelong friendships they form with these business people, that they can be mentors to (students) for years to come," he said.

And eventually, students will be able to apply for micro-loans to start their businesses, a news release from the Champaign schools said.

Ditchfield said he hopes the program can eventually work with business incubators at the University of Illinois and Parkland College to keep supporting the young businesses owners that emerge from the program.

Manda Crawford of Keller Williams Realty got involved after Changnon and some Champaign teachers came to her business for leadership training.

She said she would have loved to have a business mentor when she was in high school and hopes to pass on lessons she's learned from others.

"I think we all learn by failing, but at the same time, some of those are very costly errors," she said.

Her mentee, Brittany Bancroft, a junior at Central, wants to start a business in the fashion industry. She'd like to design clothes, create her own line and buy and sell other lines.

"I have the dream of being the next Coco Chanel," Bancroft told the group Wednesday. "It's a big dream, but I want it."

Bancroft took Central's entrepreneurship class last semester and said she knows a lot of work goes into starting a business. She's looking forward to learning from Crawford, she said.

"It will be a good way to build my personality and find out who I am," she said.

Even though Crawford doesn't work in fashion, she believes can teach Bancroft about business, she said.

"To me, the qualities of what it takes to be a successful CEO, it doesn't matter what industry you're in," she said.