The Founding Story

The 1970's saw the inception, development and growth of a new and exciting field of study in business and higher education - entrepreneurship. During this time, very few universities offered coursework for students. Students interested in becoming entrepreneurs had very few resources, opportunities and outlets to help them reach their entrepreneurial dreams and goals. And, no national student organization served this interest.

In 1983, a meeting was held in a restaurant to discuss developing an entrepreneurship organization for students who wanted to one day become an entrepreneur. Gerry Hills, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), called and facilitated the meeting of 12 Chicago-area university students. John Hughes and Jean Thorne of the Coleman Foundation contributed, along with Verne Harnish, who was working with Fran Jabara to create the Association of Collegiate Entrepreneurs (ACE), was in attendance.

From this innovative meeting stemmed the origins of the Collegiate Entrepreneurs of Illinois Conference. The first Collegiate Entrepreneurs of Illinois Conference was hosted by UIC’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies with the faculty and students of DePaul, Loyola, Illinois Institute of Technology and Northwestern University assisting in the planning and implementation of the conference. The Coleman Foundation generously contributed as the conference sponsor and continues its support today. In 1985, the conference’s name was changed to the Collegiate Entrepreneurs of the Midwest Conference.

After the conference’s continuous years of success and growth, Hills refocused his attention on creating a national/global organization supporting student entrepreneurship, the same objective as in 1983. In 1997, the Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization (CEO) was launched. The first two national conferences were called "pilot meetings" with more than 700 students representing 100 universities in attendance.

In 1999, the Kauffman Foundation joined the Coleman Foundation as a key supporter of CEO. With Kauffman’s support, CEO was able to hire full-time staff, and more and more CEO chapters began appearing on campuses. In recent years, several other important sponsors have joined with CEO, including Northwestern Mutual. Recent CEO conferences have had nearly 1,400 in attendance.

Today, CEO continues to promote its mission to inform, support and inspire college students to be entrepreneurial and seek opportunity through enterprise creation.