Creating connections: Students, educators attend Uplands Made student-run business conference

Photos courtesy of Creative Technology Corp.

Knowing how to give a firm handshake, work in a team setting, write a professional email, and follow a budget – some skills students learn best outside the traditional classroom.

Those skills, and more, were on display when Regional Opportunity Initiatives convened the third annual Uplands Made Student-Run Business Conference earlier this month. On April 11, students and educators from 20 schools gathered to connect and learn from each other at Brown County Schools Career Resource Center, home to one of the first student-run businesses (SRB) in the Uplands: Eagle Manufacturing.

“Student-run businesses are the breeding ground for real-world skills that textbooks alone cannot impart. Through these endeavors, our students learn the importance of responsibility, financial literacy, teamwork, and problem-solving,” said Brown County Schools Superintendent Emily Tracy at the start of the conference. “They gain firsthand experience in making strategic decisions, managing resources, and understanding the value of customer relationships. These are not just business skills; they are life skills that will empower them to navigate future challenges with confidence and agility.”

SRBs are made possible in the region through the ROI’s Ready Schools Initiative and important community collaborations between school districts and businesses in their communities. Each Uplands student-run business has its own personality and has been developed within the context of the local community. 

“A truly transformative movement is ongoing in the Indiana Uplands as high school students spearhead real-world enterprises, forging partnerships with schools and employers to redefine work-based learning,” said Michi McClaine, ROI’s Vice President of Talent Development.

“From manufacturing to coffee shops, these student-run businesses empower high schoolers to flourish as employees, leaders, and entrepreneurs, all while cultivating necessary skills and igniting career passions for their post-graduation pursuits. As this network of student-run enterprises continues to expand and collaborate, the future of work-based education in the Indiana Uplands is overflowing with promise and innovation.”

The network of student-run businesses across the Indiana Uplands continues to grow as Uplands Made attendance more than doubled compared to last year’s conference. 

Middle school students were also invited to attend the conference for the first time this year. Of the 20 schools in attendance, 15 have one or more currently operating SRBs at their school and five schools are in the planning stages with teachers and students. All 11 Uplands counties were represented plus Perry County and Trempealeau County, Wisconsin – the home of Cardinal Manufacturing, a model for SRBs in the Uplands.

Cardinal Manufacturing advisor Craig Cegeilski delivered the keynote address at the conference and spoke about Cardinal’s business philosophy. 

“Every day we have to show up and make products. We don’t make excuses, and we make it happen,” Cegeilski said.

Cegeilski highlighted another aspect of the student-run custom job shop’s philosophy: its commitment to continuous facility improvement and maintaining uniformity, exemplified by its red-themed shop decor.

He further emphasized that Cardinal Manufacturing provides students with essential business skills applicable across various career paths. Five posters on display in Cardinal Manufacturing’s shop focus on career success, wellness, career planning, financials, and living healthy. 

The messaging encompasses enthusiasm for life, diligent work ethic, consistent attendance, the value of quality sleep and healthy eating, a strategy for saving $1 million starting at age 18, and more. Cegeilski added they encourage students to talk to a financial advisor to understand the importance of saving and investing money early. 

Additionally, Cardinal students showcased strategies during lunch for organizing an open house for student-run businesses, inviting communities to witness their work.

“ROI is immensely grateful to Cardinal Manufacturing for traveling from Wisconsin to be a key participant in the Uplands Made conference and for generously sharing their successful business philosophy with the student-run businesses in the Uplands,” said ROI’s Education Specialist Emily Menkedick. “Their valuable insights and participation greatly enriched the conference experience for all attendees.”

Sharing skills, creating connections

Avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach, some student-run businesses partner with local employers that provide guidance, feedback, and mentorship. Armed with employer insights and business plans, these student-run businesses are embedded within regional high schools. 

In this hands-on approach, students learn logistics, customer service, design, production, marketing, teamwork, and public speaking skills all while creating a deeper understanding of the real world of work—and the powerful combination of hard and soft skills needed in the Uplands workforce.

Jeep Engineering and Manufacturing advisor Tina Terwiske agrees that student-run businesses provide high schoolers with a “taste of the real world.”

“I love student-run businesses. Not every kid is going to college, and even those who are going to college look at all the skills they are learning,” she said.

At the event, students showcased their products and led breakout sessions on screen printing, production management, sales, marketing, and more.

Jeep Engineering and Manufacturing students led a breakout session during the conference about using lasers in production, such as engraving handwritten recipes on cutting boards—a popular gift around the holiday season.

Jeep Engineering and Manufacturing began using the laser and new software this school year.  Terwiske helped her students learn the latest technology while navigating her first year leading Jeep Engineering and Manufacturing.

Terwiske said she had a few students, or “lifelines,” who helped her learn the ropes of the business including senior Brooklyn Kiefer. Kiefer works in management and communications for the SRB. She has been with Jeep Engineering and Manufacturing since her sophomore year. She plans to study engineering in college. 

“I like putting stuff together. I like working in teams. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is how to communicate with people and how to work with people effectively,” Kiefer said of her SRB experience. “I’ve learned how to talk to people and I am a lot more comfortable talking with people.”

Her communication skills shined through as Kiefer led the breakout session with her classmates – and co-workers. Kiefer said she enjoys attending the Uplands Made conference because she learns from other SRBs.

“We’re on a much smaller scale. But I think we have the same goals as everybody,” she said.

Other SRBs were learning from Jeep Engineering and Manufacturing, too. As their presentation concluded, hands went up with questions centered on the type of ventilation they use, how they send their projects to their lasers, and more. 

Later in the afternoon, Orleans Jr./Sr. High School seniors Ryan Williams and Maguire Lamb stood in the same classroom presenting their breakout session “Get Better or Get Beaten,” which focused on how to use and learn manufacturing tools to improve and organize businesses. 

Williams is the design engineer and production manager for Bulldog Manufacturing and Design. Lamb is the design engineer and sales manager for the SRB.

“I’m building real-world experiences that will prepare me not only for college but for the field of engineering. Since sixth grade, I’ve wanted to be a computer engineer,” Williams said.

“Bulldog Manufacturing has given me the opportunity to not only attend events like this to get a better understanding of everything, but I’ve built up really great skills.”

From how to use computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D modeling to building confidence and communication skills, Williams said he has gained many skills from his SRB experience.

“We’re (Bulldog Manufacturing and Design) selling tiny pieces of our basketball court because it’s getting redone. We’re cutting up and engraving some pieces. I had a meeting with our superintendent. He wanted to know how we were going to sell the pieces and what we were going to do with the pieces. I felt confident in that meeting because of my experience with Bulldog Manufacturing,” Williams said.

Maguire said he credits Bulldog Manufacturing and Design advisor Jacob Smith with almost everything he has learned in high school. Smith is also the industrial technology teacher at Orleans Jr. Sr. High School.

“The Bulldog Manufacturing experience and engineering experience is by far the class I’ve learned the most in. We will retain it forever. It’s not just business skills or engineering skills, but life skills in general,” Lamb said. “You have some kids who come into the engineering or manufacturing pathway that have never swung a hammer before. Mr. Smith does a great job of relating to the kids and teaching them not only skills but mentoring and helping them.”

This is the third school year Smith has served as the advisor of Bulldog Manufacturing and Design. He previously worked as an engineer. 

“I always had this passion to be around students. I coach some sports, so being around kids and having that energy, interacting with them, and teaching the next generation is what it’s all about,” he said. 

Lamb said the Uplands Made conference is a way for students to polish their skills outside of the classroom setting. 

“Going to different events where you have to speak to adults and be professional, shake hands, make eye contact, talk to them, and ask questions,” he said. “It’s a different type of thinking regular school does not teach you.”

Williams said the day at Uplands Made was filled with “great presentations.”

“I took notes and learned quite a bit, which will hopefully help our business become more successful,” he said.

Smith agreed.

“The point of our student-run business is to give students experiences and opportunities. The best way to do that is to make it as real as possible. That’s what we preach. Events like this, we’re big into continuous improvement and how we can get better,” he said.

“Learning from these schools who have been doing it for 20 years and Brown County hosting it, seeing different methods and tools sparks new ideas. We walk away feeling energized.”