Jr. CEO program teaches kids the basics of business

Ben Irwin

Visalia Chamber of Commerce connects with kids on business through hot chocolate stands

VISALIA – This fall, the Visalia Chamber of Commerce hosted their Jr. CEO program, which takes enrolled students through a five-week digital business education course that teaches kids the basics of starting their own company, centered around the scenario of opening a hot chocolate stand.

The program takes enrolled students through a five-week digital business education course that teaches kids the basics of starting their own company. The fall course was centered around opening a hot chocolate stand, and spring will be a lemonade stand, but the kids are welcome to bring their own ideas to the table as well. Gail Zurek, CEO of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has always been focused on entrepreneurship, but the pandemic provided a unique opportunity for an online learning experience for kids.

“This is a program that we developed from the ground up and completely on our own with our own concepts,” Zurek said, “and we designed it so we could highlight business leaders and that they could share their expertise. We made it very digestible.”

The five week kid crash course covers a slew of business essentials—communicated at a sixth grade learning level—like opening a bank account, money management, marketing services, customer service, cost models and even safety and food prep.

Tuition is $25 per student, but the Visalia Chamber offers a $50 scholarship option for one paid student and another student to be able to attend at no cost. Every child will need access to a computer and the internet to participate. Kids are not required to be in sixth grade to participate; if a child is younger they might need more help from parents, and older students might see this as an introduction to concepts they can develop deeper.

“This was the youngest group that we had worked with,” Zurek said, “and I actually think it was really successful because of the range that we targeted.”

William and Madeline Schafer, 12 and 10, participated in the fall session, but brought their own business to fine tune.

“We make handmade bookmarks that slip over the corner of your page,” Madeline said, “William made a website and I created the Facebook and Instagram pages.”

The brother and sister bookmark duo behind William’s Book Corner started their business well before the Jr. CEO program, when William started making bookmarks for kids in his fourth grade class at Shannon Ranch Elementary, where they quickly became a popular item. Madeline said the junior CEO program helped them take their bookmark business to the next level.

“We got a lot of information,” Madeline said, “it definitely helped us grow and advertise.”

William and Madeline’s father, Karl Shafer, pastor at River Cross Church, said a highlight of the program from his perspective was seeing the culminating event Nov. 7 when all the kids set up stands for their businesses around Visalia.

“Our kids loved being able to do that,” Shafer said, “it taught them all the things that you’d expect. Having to interface with customers and describe your product, and have the boldness to walk up to somebody and say, ‘hey, we make bookmarks.’”

At their stand, William and Madeline offered some special edition Mickey and Minnie bookmarks, and had patrons enter for a drawing to win their prized beach set bookmarks, which won first place at a contest at the Tulare County fair.

“Lots of other people came by and they liked how they don’t fall out of their book when they open your book,” Madeline said, “they stay in and you don’t lose them.”

Zurek said the Jr. CEO program provided a different kind of opportunity for kids to connect with their community during a pandemic. She shared a story about Cam Rogers, a student whose family had just moved to California and had struggled to meet anyone in the area because of COVID-19.

“It’s kind of hard to be in a new community and not do all the things that you normally would to feel a part of things,” Zurek said. “As a chamber, we helped connect him. He had a pretty prominent downtown location, he was at Garden Street plaza. Truthfully, we texted a bunch of people and said, ‘I know there’s a bunch of different ones that you can go to, but please make it a point to welcome him into our community.’ I stopped by in the morning and he was doing good, and I stopped by in the afternoon and he was like, ‘So many people have stopped by!’ So it’s little things like that. The program is more than just, ‘let me teach you how to price a cup of hot chocolate.’ We’re pretty proud of it.”

Zurek said the chamber has had multiple requests to make the Jr. CEO program available to other chambers and school districts, and plans to license the program for others to use.

Parents can currently sign their kids up for the spring session at the chamber’s website, which has a tentative start date in March.

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