A Look Ahead - The New Paradigm: Investing in Millennials Yields Returns for Small Towns

Spring 2013

Over the past three years, I have spent a great deal of time researching the innovative group we call Millennial Entrepreneurs. I am astounded by the entrepreneurial spirit that Millennials possess. These young people are proving to be one of the most powerful economic development drivers I have ever seen.

Millennial entrepreneurs, young people under the age of 29, are quickly transforming the boomtowns identified in the original research conducted for the book I authored in 2006 entitled, “BoomtownUSA.” Those towns that are figuring out how to inspire, instruct and assist these young entrepreneurs are the ones that are going to transform the future of their communities. A profound paradigm shift is occurring in rural America — economic developers are spending less time recruiting new businesses and more time channeling recruitment resources toward local young people. One huge advantage of this shift is that local entrepreneurs are establishing much deeper roots than those recruited into the community. There are reams of research that show that community leaders must connect with Millennials to create a positive economic future. This won’t happen by itself. Communities must be proactive.

The county of Effingham, IL has one of the best programs I have seen for truly engaging Millennials and connecting them to their community. The county experienced a profound change since figuring out how to effectively engage the Millennial group. Five years ago, a group of local business leaders and educators developed a program called CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities). The program is a year-long class for high school juniors and seniors. The ultimate goal of the class is for these students to become so engaged with the community that they want to eventually return to live, work, raise families and start businesses. The course is taught by Craig Lindvahl, an entrepreneur himself. Craig is a Milken National Educator Award recipient and also a multiple Mid-America Emmy award winning film producer. He understands that the key to retaining these Millennials is all in the connection.

table listings stats from the CEO program

Students learn about all aspects of business: finance, marketing, operations, inventory, manufacturing and sales. An understanding of these topics comes from approximately 75 guest speakers as well as visits to more than 50 businesses each year. Students also work together to build a class business, which creates seed money for the next year’s class. Learning takes on a new meaning as each student starts a real, viable business which is featured at a year-end trade show. While in the CEO program, students write business plans and present them to local investors and bankers. They learn how to network, dress appropriately and speak publicly. They become comfortable with, and excited about, the business community in which they live.

My “aha” moment with the CEO program occurred when the students, who come from six county high schools, were surveyed before and after the course. Prior to taking it, only three of the 25 students in the course that year intended to return to the county after college. Afterwards, 21 of the same 25, were interested in returning. It was the personal connection to the business community that drove the change from 3 to 21.

A transformational educational and economic development opportunity can benefit every community. The CEO program invests in what may be the greatest asset of any town — it’s youth.

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