Sangamon CEO: Investing in People


a Sangamon CEO student at a booth for the annual trade show

Sabina Tapscott at the Sangamon CEO booth for the 2015-2016 trade show

High school classes don’t typically allow students to learn directly from mentors and entrepreneurs, but Sangamon CEO is striving to change that. Sangamon CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities) is a privately-funded class that empowers high school seniors to become young innovators and entrepreneurs. Over the course of the school year, students visit dozens of local businesses, learn from business owners and experts, write business plans, participate in pitch-off events, and launch their own businesses.

Since its beginnings in 2013, Sangamon CEO has become one of the most impactful education programs in the county. This is because of its mission to invest directly in people. We spoke to investor, Brad Zara, and alumni, Catie Goriszewski, about their takeaways and investments in the program.

Investor Beginnings

Sangamon CEO investor Brad Zara first heard about CEO at a luncheon in 2012. He was immediately intrigued by the speeches of two alumni of the Effingham CEO program. These alumni emphasized the impact CEO had had on them. Many community leaders were inspired to fund and support a Sangamon County branch of CEO because of this prospect of direct investment in students.

What the alumni and CEO’s founder were proposing, Zara said, just made sense. CEO’s hands-on learning approach specifically inspired him to get involved as one of the first investors.

“Throughout the years, as I’ve developed a network of friends in the business community and learned from them. I just know how powerful that network is. So, for [the students] to be able to get in nine months what really took me 25 years to develop, in the way of a network, that’s priceless.”

Return on Investment

During the past three years of his involvement, Zara has seen many kids find their passion within Sangamon CEO. Zara considers helping students gain this confidence to be the most rewarding part of investing in the program.

“To see students that, at the beginning of the year, may be scared to get up and even introduce themselves, to see them confidently getting up and speaking in front of a large group of people…the public speaking skills, the confidence that they build over that time. Seeing that truly is the most rewarding.”

Zara encourages potential students to apply to Sangamon CEO. Not only do students gain confidence and skills for college, but they also build a life-long business network they can always reconnect with. Potential investors, Zara says, could not choose better program to support.

“Do not hesitate. The great part of it is, you’re not just contributing to a cause and then maybe seeing a little bit of what happens. [CEO] is open to you being there as much or as little as you want. So, you can get right in there and be active in interacting with the students as often as you want. So, really, you have a lot of opportunity to have an impact beyond just the financial contribution”

Alumni Reflections

Sangamon CEO alumni Catie Goriszewski understands the educational impacts of the program first-hand. Goriszewski first heard about CEO through a promotion at her high school. She decided to apply, and the program ultimately equipped her for college, inspired her interest in local business, and broke her out of her shell.

The class of 2015-2016 at CEO vs Sharks

The class of 2015-2016 on stage at CEO vs Sharks

Before joining the program, Goriszewski had had little exposure to small, local businesses. Sangamon CEO students interact with local business owners and investors on a daily basis. Because of this, she gained a completely different perspective of Springfield through CEO’s hands-on learning approach.

The program also encourages students to launch their own businesses at public events. Goriszewski considers the annual pitch-off event, CEO vs Sharks, the most rewarding part of her CEO experience. As a result of training to pitch her ideas, she has become a more confident public speaker. This has helped her directly in college presentations.

“[CEO vs Sharks] was an event that kind of broke me out of my shell. I had been kind of nervous and shy and not very good at public speaking, but being able to go up on stage and accomplish so much was great.”

Goriszewski encourages both students and investors to get involved because they are uniquely positioned to learn from each other through the program, she says.

“[CEO] is a great opportunity to see kids that are actually interested [in business]. I don’t think a lot of adults realize that there are passionate students–people who are willing to devote a lot of time to a certain activity to benefit themselves in the long run.”

Get Involved

More than 80 investors currently support Sangamon CEO. Each investor donates $1,000 per year to inspire high school students to become entrepreneurs. Since its first class of 2013-2014, 70 student innovators have graduated from the program. Twenty-nine more will graduate with the class of 2017.

The CEO program would not be able to inspire students without the support of investors. The program provides a unique opportunity for all those involved to learn from and inspire one another. Through investing in Sangamon CEO, you are investing in people—the future of our community.  

Visit Sangamon CEO’s website to learn more about how you can get involved. Join the Sangamon CEO class of 2017 at CEO vs Sharks to support students pitching their businesses.

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