Dixon business owner credits success to CEO program experience

Former CEO student Hannah Wilson is a full-time business owner at 23

The owner of Rack City Thrift Shop posing at the check out counter in front of neon "Rack City" sign.

DIXON — Back in 2018, Hannah Wilson, then a high school student, was part of Whiteside Area Career Center’s CEO program, learning the ins and outs of running a business. Today, at 23 years old, she is a full-time business owner with her own thrift store, Rack City, in downtown Dixon.

The doors officially opened in September 2022. In her own words, the store is “turning 2″ this year. Wilson credits her experience in the CEO program as the reason for Rack City’s success. She said that her time in the program made her feel comfortable asking other people to help her.

“I think a lot of people try to [open a business] on their own and you can see it doesn’t work out because it’s a lot of hard work,” Wilson said.

The CEO program is a hands-on course offered to junior and senior high school students that brings them into the business world. Combined with speaker presentations done by various professionals around the community, visits to local businesses, a mentor program and a final project creating their own business, students are taught many life skills that are not addressed in the traditional classroom.

Kids have a hard time with “adult skills,” Mary Oros, a Dixon City Council member and mentor in the program, said. The program helps students practice shaking someone’s hand, making eye contact and picking up the phone to have a conversation, she said.

“[In a typical high school class, you don’t learn] how to be financially independent or how to set yourself up...that’s why CEO really did help because we had a lot of business owners that gave us a little bit of the secrets...we had an advantage for sure,” Wilson said.

The Whiteside Area Career Center opened at the beginning of the 1966-67 school year. It was the first area vocational school in Illinois. Today, it is one of 60.

These systems provide career programming among member schools and report data to the Illinois State Board of Education. The current member schools of the WACC are Amboy, Ashton-Franklin Center (AFC), Bureau Valley, Dixon, Eastland, Erie, Forreston, Fulton, Milledgeville, Morrison, Ohio, Oregon, Polo, Prophetstown, Rock Falls, Sterling, Newman Central Catholic, Unity Christian, and Faith Christian.

Students who are interested in the CEO program must apply to take the class and are then admitted through a blind selection process. Currently, there are 33 students enrolled for the 2023-24 school year.

There are two CEO classes led by facilitators LeAndra Hartmen and Emily Zimmerman. At the beginning of the school year, the students form a class business or event to raise money for their individual businesses that are displayed at a trade show at the end of the year.

The assignment teaches students how to work as a team and experience delegating responsibilities, Oros said.

Oros was a speaker and gave a presentation about women in government when her daughter went through the program. She was asked to be a mentor after that and has been a speaker and a mentor for about 4 years.

“My daughter’s a sophomore in college now and she always says that this program was the most crucial piece that set her on a good path,” Oros said.

Throughout the year, students are brought into local businesses and listen to different speakers talk about their industries. Kris Noble, executive director of the Sauk Valley Area Chamber of Commerce and board chair for the CEO program, said that it’s a “good use of dollars” because it “helps keeps kids local” by showing them the types of jobs that are available in their area.

“There were so many businesses that I didn’t even realize were in our area and that was a really cool thing,” Wilson said.

As a final project for the class, students are tasked with creating their own businesses to showcase at a trade show event toward the end of the school year.

In the CEO program, Wilson’s business was selling handmade makeup bags. Although she didn’t continue her makeup bag business, she still believes the CEO program set her on her path. She said it all started after she completed two years at Sauk Valley Community College and her brother suggested that she open her own store.

“[In college] I started selling stuff out of my closet on Instagram and Poshmark. I still remember my first sale. It was so exciting,” Wilson said.

Taking her brother’s advice, she opened her first store, which wasn’t an immediate success. She began contacting other business owners in the area and eventually reached out to the owner of Revive, a local boutique shop. The two slowly became friends and decided to open a thrift store together. Wilson moved out of her old location and moved into their current location, next to Revive, 116 E. First St. The business grew from her “being a one-man show” to now having about five employees.

“I‘m really fortunate with the people that I brought in here. I have the best team,” Wilson said.

Most of her employees are CEO students who have come in saying they want to work at her store. Her hiring philosophy was modeled out of a life lesson she learned while in the CEO program: always ask for something if you want it. That mantra has stuck with her throughout the years and was the reason why she’s never put up a help wanted sign.

Another thing she’s carried with her since leaving the CEO program is a journal. CEO students have a journal that they carry around with them each day and anytime someone says something that inspires them they’ll write it down.

“I’ve like taken that with me throughout my entire life. I’m always a notes type of person so I’m constantly writing things down,” she said.

The CEO program is run entirely by donations. Money is donated by business partners, student projects and fundraisers.

“The city [of Dixon] has recognized the impact that the program has on its students and has stepped up as a sponsor,” Oros said.

This year’s CEO class trade show will be held on Wednesday, April 24, from 4:30-7:30 p.m. and Thursday, April 25, from 4:30-6:30 p.m. at Northland Mall in Sterling.

Payton Felix

Payton Felix

Payton Felix reports on local news in the Sauk Valley for the Shaw Local News Network. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago in May of 2023.