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CEO program to encourage local teens to become entrepreneurs

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St. Joseph County has a shortage of entrepreneurs, according to retired local business owner Larry Garatoni. So he and other local business owners are teaming up to try and change that by piquing teenagers' interests at a young age and helping create jobs in the future.

According to Garatoni, some studies show 80 percent of all new jobs are created by start-up companies in the first 5 years of their existence. More start ups mean more jobs and more opportunity, Garatoni said.

"I feel very strongly about helping local kids live up to their potential," he said.

A retired local businessman who co-founded South Bend's Career Academy in August 2011, Garatoni recently pitched a new idea to every public and private high school in St. Joseph County - the CEO program. He's now on the local program's board of directors.

"The classes will be held in various businesses around the community," he said. "The program is about as non-academic as you can get and about as real world as you can get because there are between 50 and 60 businesses over the course of the year that will interact with the students."

In this case, CEO stands for "Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities." Up to 25 students will be selected from an application process to get high school and college credits while they go through the year-long program.

"We don't want them to run a company like ours. We want them to run a company that they're passionate about," explained fellow CEO board of directors member Jim Larkin.

Larkin's been brewing that passion as CEO of a company called Scientific Methods, Inc. in Granger. He owns the Harris Building, behind Beef O'Brady's, and for the past 11 years has helped local high tech start-ups such as EmNet get off the ground.

"A lot of the West Coast companies and East Coast companies are very glad to take Midwestern kids and take them into their companies because there's a great work ethic here. And we don't blame them but we blame ourselves if we don't show these high school students that there's a lot of opportunity right here," Larkin added.

Right now the CEO program is looking for local businesses and students to get on board. Businesses are asked to make a financial commitment (a minimum of $1,000 per year for a 3 year period), or step up by offering to speak to the class, allowing students from the class to come by their business to ask questions and learn or to mentor the students.

Student applications for the program are due February 15. The application process includes a one-page essay and at least two references. The CEO program is scheduled to begin next fall.

For information about the program visit www.stjoeceo.org.

Right now there are about a dozen similar CEO programs across the country and two in Indiana.

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