Millikin’s SPARK Program Builds Entrepreneurial Skills for Local Middle Schoolers

Students at Warrensburg-Latham Middle School developed their own business ventures.


DECATUR, Ill. – Before classes start each morning at Warrensburg-Latham Middle School, students begin their day with a short enrichment period where they can do various activities.

The students who meet with Dr. Sara Theis, Millikin University’s Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship, get to use that time to develop their entrepreneurial skills in creating and implementing their own businesses. 

Millikin’s Center for Entrepreneurship is a resource for entrepreneurs at every level. Through various programs and development opportunities, the Center serves Millikin faculty and students, youth (ranging in age from elementary to high school level), community and local businesses.

Sara Theis
Millikin's Dr. Sara Theis is the Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship.

“One of the things we’ve been talking about is that the Center should serve students in the K-12 environment, entrepreneurship on campus, and entrepreneurship in the community,” Theis said. “Initially, we solely collaborated with organizations that serve high school students interested in business. This program is the next step in developing entrepreneurial skills in middle school  students.”

The program is called SPARK (Students Plan, Act, Reflect, Know), and through the daily classes, the students have learned the process of creating, forming, and implementing a business idea. 

“Entrepreneurship is behavior. It is about recognizing opportunity, harnessing resources, and delivering value,” Theis said. “The way that value is measured can be in financial or monetary outcomes. Sometimes, it is measured in terms of doing good for people who have a need.”

The class was divided into three groups, each choosing a topic that was of interest to them to base their business around. 

Leadership group
Members of the Team Fortnite (top), ACK Treats (left) and Safe Box (right) businesses.

ACK Treats focused on reducing hunger by selling brownies to their fellow students and donating the money to the Northeast Community Fund. Team Fortnite wanted to reduce online bullying by hosting a Fortnight video game tournament, with the profits being donated to an online bullying organization. Safe Box also looked at reducing bullying by providing a safe space and peer-to-peer support for students. 

The group presented their ideas to Principal Paul Hoffman, who provided feedback and suggestions. 

“I loved their presentations. Some were middle school problems, and some were addressing problems outside of the building and worldwide problems of hunger and helping others,” Hoffman said. “What I’m taking away is their ability to provide those profits to help other individuals. Sometimes, the stereotype is that middle school kids only think of themselves, but they look out for others and research who they can help. It gives me pride as a principal to have the students reflect and think outside of the school building to help others. They are important life lessons.”

As with most businesses, each group faced problems and challenges, such as server problems on a scheduled date for the Fortnite tournament. 

“One of the things that is celebrated in business is failure.  It teaches students a good lesson that failure isn’t catastrophic. It is a tool to help us learn and we can make better businesses when we adjust because of those failures” Theis said. “I was excited by the ideas the groups had. They are all good ideas, and they were all something that the students wanted to do and learned about how to plan better.”

A similar program has begun at Decatur St. Teresa, and Theis hopes to expand to other schools in the spring. Each participating school will also come to Millikin’s campus for a spring competition. 

“When I was in middle school, I don’t think we had these opportunities, and I think the kids are running with it,” Hoffman said. “It is their own thinking and planning, and you have to corral them a bit, but they are very driven to do it. I love the opportunity that Dr. Theis is providing them.”