Since its founding in 2013, the students participating in the Sangamon CEO program have taken on challenges and come up with solutions. After all, “CEO” stands for “Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities.” This year got a little dicey because the 44 high school seniors needed a project they could implement during a pandemic.
Program Director Nabih Elhajj says that during a class conversation, the students shared their increased feelings of anxiety and sadness. They wondered how many people in the community felt the same way. To find out, they created a survey and collected 500 responses. The survey showed that almost everyone had the same feelings.
The students then searched for a project in-line with the CDC’s recommendations of staying active and being outdoors. Nabih says, “This was the catalyst for the ice rink.”
He says, “When they first told me, I knew it was an ambitious plan. I thought, ‘If there’s traction, then we’ll be able to pull it off. If not, the market will tell us not to pursue the idea.’”
The “market” was sponsors. They needed $55,000 to bring the plan to life. LRS, whose large auditorium has allowed students to meet in person this year, took on the biggest part of the goal earning the rink the name of “The LRS Ice Rink.”
Scheels Sporting Goods donated ice skates for rental, and a store pro cleans and sharpens the blades. “Sharpening is an expensive and dangerous process,” Nabih explains. That’s why he’s thrilled Scheels was able to offer the critical service at a discount.
The Perfect Pitch
The students began selling their idea to local businesses, hoping to find the sponsors they needed. INB was first on the list.
“I was impressed with how professional the students were when they came into our office to sell their plan. You could tell they had done their homework and were totally prepared with the presentation,” says Tom Gihl, INB executive vice president and COO.
The most interesting part of the entire proposal was the rink itself. It’s not made of ice, but a synthetic, self-lubricating material that isn’t affected by the temperature. Tom says, “I think many of us remember the trouble with outdoor ice rinks here in Central Illinois. We get a warm day or two, and the rink has to close down. With this synthetic fabric, they won’t have to work around the warmer weather. Instead, I expect they’ll have crowds on warmer, winter days than on the very cold days.”
INB made a decision to say “yes” to sponsorship. Nabih says, with that sponsorship in hand, the students got a “whole avalanche of supporters.” And very quickly, students had the seed money they needed.
On December 16, Nabih and a team of students were on hand to unload the semi carrying the rink to Springfield. A contractor was hired to build the frame on a piece of flat ground on land at the southwest corner of Scheels. For more than two weeks, the students worked every day to construct the ice rink. The final step was to put the “ice” on top of the frame. Throughout the process, the students had to push against cold weather, strong winds, rain and snow to complete construction. They faced setbacks and delays, but Nabih is proud to say they worked alternative solutions and kept the project moving.
In the end, Nabih says they have their own Christmas Village.
The rink is now open from 5 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 1 to 8 p.m. on weekends, with the Sangamon CEO team providing the manpower. You’ll find details on the Sangamon CEO website. The plan is to be open through February 28.
In the opening week, The LRS Ice Rink served over 1,000 customers and generated more than $10,000 in revenue. Since then, the demand for the ice rink has increased. So far Nabih says he is happy with how things are going, “We are constantly receiving requests from youth groups and organizations to rent the space; we are even receiving requests from villages wanting us to locate our ice rink in their towns. In talking to customers, we are surprised to see how many people travel to Springfield just to visit our ice rink. It has been a great success, and I suspect it will continue to be.”
While every CEO class has made Nabih proud, he’s especially happy to be able to say that this year’s class took on the biggest undertaking of ANY CEO class anywhere. And for his team, “This is the first time that as an organization we’ve opened a business in the community,” he says.
Because of the pandemic, the students have been holding class virtually, but maintain a schedule of daily sessions. Half of the team is in the LRS auditorium; the other half joins via Zoom. Nabih notes it was important for the students to be together physically to assure they were all involved. They broke out in teams based on responsibility, and one member of each team served on the project’s board. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” Nabih explains. “The students had to make the logistics work, the finances, the marketing and sponsorship work.”