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Working space

Oregon High students get a retail incubator at Conover

OREGON – Aspiring entrepreneurs at Oregon High School will get an up-close experience dealing in business.

How close? The school’s Social Entrepreneurship Program is moving into a 1,000-square-foot space inside Conover Square Mall downtown, and plans to open its Pop Up Shop in mid- to late May.

The shop, on the lower level of the mall, consists of a lobby, a showroom and an employee area. It’s a way for students to get a hands-on experience in dealing with customers and operating their business, program adviser Aaron Sitze said.

“Students have actual customers, create actual products, and have the income and expenses of actual businesses, so an incubator retail space was the next logical step in helping grow student independence,” Sitze said.

Oregon’s Social Entrepreneurship Program focuses on businesses that provide a social benefit, either by donating a portion of their revenue to charity or by serving the community through their business practices.

As far as Sitze knows, its the only high school program in the state to have students run socially minded businesses.

“All student businesses must be centered around creating a positive social impact,” Sitze said. “Their businesses don’t have a bottom line to measure success, they have a triple bottom line: profit, social impact and environmental sustainability.”

Abi Hopkins’ photography business has her taking photos with her phone and editing them for resale.

She didn’t have to look far to find some potential customers; She’s already worked with Isabelle Nelson’s cupcake company, Le Fou Gateau – French for “the crazy cake” – and The Lotus Company, a clothing line run by Jasmine Herbst and Makenna Mongan to help combat domestic violence.

“I go around to small local businesses and help them with visual marketing,” said Hopkins, a senior. “I make their social media posts look more appealing to the eye, so to catch the attention of more customers.” 

Spencer Coots, another senior, is creating things from metals such as frying pans, buckets and tailpipes. The aspiring blacksmith fell in love with the trade on a Cub Scout trip to Galena, and plans to sell knives, barbecue tongs and forks, steak turners and belt buckles, to name a few items.

“There was a blacksmith shop there, and I wanted to check it out,” Coots said. “When I did, it was at that moment when I realized that it’s what I want to be doing for the rest of my life.”

The nonprofit volunteer group Hands on Oregon partnered with Conover Square and the school to provide the space at Conover.

Sitze, who also owns White Pelican canoe and boat rentals at the mall with his wife, Christina, was approached by Conover owner Lou VanderWyst about utilizing additional space for the class.

“He was talking about having a place for them to do some work outside of the basement and the garage, and a place to have their presentations,” VanderWyst said.

“We approached them about having a semi-permanent place, even though it’ll be used a couple of months out of the year. They were real enthused about it, and it should be a good partnership.”

So far, volunteers have contributed more than 900 hours of time, and the project has used $4,000 worth of supplies, many contributed by local businesses. Students will help sand, paint, trim, design, and decorate the space before it opens.

In their new space, students will display different business prototypes and highlight their successes.

“We have talented welders, woodworkers, artists, and designers in the program, so we’d love to see everything in that space be student-built, from the shelves and tables down to the picture frames around the student photographs,” Sitze said. 

In the months that it will not be used by the program, VanderWyst plans to utilize the space as a conference room.

To donate

Oregon High School's Social Entrepreneurship Program is self-funded and needs community help in the form of donations, investors and mentors.

Tax-deductible donations can be sent to Hands On Oregon, PO Box 244, Oregon, IL 61061.

Email Oregon High School Social Entrepreneurship Program coordinator Aaron Sitze at for more information.

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