14 Jan 2014

Spreading the Seeds of Entrepreneurship

To boost the economies of rural America, Jack Schultz (MBA 1976) launched a program to develop high school business leaders.
Re: Howard Stevenson
by Garry Emmons


Jack Schultz (MBA 1976), the oldest of eight children, grew up in the farming hamlet of Teutopolis, Illinois, population 1,100. It's fitting that his father was in the seed business (raising soybean and grass seed) because Schultz, like a latter-day Johnny Appleseed, has begun spreading the seeds of entrepreneurship among rural youth in America's heartland.

Schultz is the founder and CEO of Agracel, an industrial development firm that focuses on rural America. Since 1986, Agracel, based in Effingham, Illinois, has completed projects in 14 states and facilitated more than 7,000 jobs. Agracel owns over six million square feet of industrial space, 15 business parks, and a short-line railroad.

While achieving this professional success, Schultz, who was named Ernst & Young's 2005 Illinois Entrepreneur of the Year, has been active on another front as well.

"My primary business is recruiting manufacturing firms into rural communities and helping them create jobs," explains Schultz. "As a result of this work, in 2001 I embarked on a three-year research project that began by looking at 15,800 small towns across America and narrowing that down to the few hundred that seemed the most outstanding in terms of job and population growth and quality of life. That research led me to write a book, Boomtown USA: The 7½ Keys to Big Success in Small Towns, published in 2004." Since then, Schultz has visited some 400 communities in 44 states where he has spoken on rural economics, revitalizing rural communities, and how to become a "Boomtown."

During his research and travels, Schultz realized the importance of creating new entrepreneurs as a way to stimulate rural job growth. To that end, after he'd brainstormed with Craig Lindvahl, an Illinois "Teacherpreneur" of the Year, the two men resolved to set up a program in their rural county that would bring in students from each district high school for a daily class in entrepreneurship. Dubbed CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities) by its first group of students, the program is totally paid for by individual donations of no more than $1,000 from local citizens and businesses; it is taught only in and by local business venues; and it requires that each student start a business.

The program also features a $100,000 venture fund, established by an anonymous donor, to which students may apply for capital to get their business ideas up and running. Start-ups include a business converting pickup trucks to run on propane and a "Man Closet," now being manufactured and distributed, where hunters can store their outdoor clothing and gear. One student who was destined for his family's welding shop after high school is now getting an MBA because he says he wants "a seat at the table."

"Since our launch in 2008, we've had 110 students take the class," Schultz notes. "Except for one who's in an elite military unit, all have gone on to college, including 30 or 40 who otherwise might not have. Approximately 25 communities in four states are currently looking at starting the class in 2014, thus joining the six Illinois and Indiana communities already offering it."

Schultz cites HBS professors Howard Stevenson (entrepreneurship), Ray Goldberg (agribusiness), and Michael Porter (strategy) as particular influences. "My 'aha' moment came with a survey we do at the beginning and end of the class, asking students if they think they will come back to the county. In the initial survey, only 3 of 25 indicated they'd likely remain or come back after college. At the conclusion of the course, 21 of 25 thought they'd come back. That's because of the interest shown in them and the great people they'd met during the year. This course has really transformed our rural county. I believe it should be offered in every town in America."

Highlights from the Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities program

  • Meets for 90 minutes each day
  • Provides 2 high school credits
  • Uses area businesses as classrooms
  • Visits dozens of area businesses each year
  • Hosts 50 to 60 guest speakers each year
  • Provides an opportunity for each student to start his/her own business
  • Provides a mentor from the business community for each CEO student
  • Hosts an annual trade show to showcase student businesses

(For more information, visit www.effinghamceo.com and www.midlandinstitute.com.)

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1976, Section D
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