When Lyneir Richardson, executive director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (CUEED) and an instructor of professional practice at Rutgers Business School in Newark, N.J., starts his class each semester, he asks his MBA students what the biggest issues are in their respective cities. The responses he receives range from crime rates to education, but his comeback is always the same — you can find a business solution to any of these problems.
[Above: An entrepreneur in Rutgers School of Business’ Entrepreneurship Pioneers Initiative receives advice from his business counselor in preparation for an investor pitch and growth presentation.]
Nearly 10 years ago, when CUEED was created, Richardson says he and his colleagues started out with the modest goal of helping fledgling entrepreneurs in vulnerable communities reach the next level of success with their businesses. The center has since met and exceeded that objective. Of the more than 400 entrepreneurs who have been sponsored by CUEED, over 70 percent are still in business.
“We’re celebrating the role of the entrepreneur as being impactful to urban community revitalization,” says Richardson.
Part of continuing that cycle of revitalization, he says, means having Rutgers business students working “shoulder to shoulder” with local entrepreneurs. To do this, CUEED pairs small groups of students with an entrepreneur or organization leader in a Newark neighborhood for a six-week project in which students must complete a scope of work, project outline, paper, and final presentation on what they accomplished and observed.
This arrangement ensures that students receive the experiential learning necessary to understand how entrepreneurs can positively affect underserved communities, and it provides local entrepreneurs and organizations with resources they might not have access to otherwise. Through these projects, CUEED students have contributed to the economic development of underserved communities in a variety of ways — from identifying expansion and acquisition opportunities to helping a local arts organization generate earned income.
Sherry Shepard, a former student in Richardson’s CUEED class, says that participating in these projects allowed her to learn life skills while helping people in the process, and she believes the program equips students to succeed as urban entrepreneurs. Perhaps most important, though, she says that CUEED “fosters an environment of investment in the community and economic development.”
Jennifer Bruen, project coordinator of the Michigan State University Center for Regional Economic Innovation (REI) — another program focused on revitalizing underserved communities — agrees that putting young people into real-world situations in vulnerable neighborhoods is important both for the students and the communities they work with. Often, students haven’t encountered the economic realities that underserved areas face, she says. “In the work we do with communities, we see social inequality and racism, but we are recently seeing a rise in income inequality across religions, cultures, and races impacting occupations at all levels,” Bruen says, “and this is becoming the great divide.”
REI’s Student-Led, Faculty-Guided Projects bring college students from across Michigan — those majoring in business as well as other disciplines — into underserved communities, such as the Brightmoor neighborhood in northwest Detroit and Berrien County, under the supervision of experienced faculty. It’s a partnership that allows students to gain experience and apply the theoretical knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom. The model seems to be effective in preparing them to contribute in the real world; according to Bruen, 95 percent of REI participants say their project experiences have helped prepare them for future jobs.
Additionally, REI sponsors Co-Learning Projects in which practitioners, decision-makers, community leaders, entrepreneurs, scholars, and other stakeholders collaborate to examine pressing economic and entrepreneurial issues in Michigan. These projects span a range of business areas; recent ones have looked at policies that drive infrastructure investment, examined social enterprise planning, and encouraged entrepreneurial activity. But all of them aim to “stimulate economically vibrant places that encourage high-growth entrepreneurial development and create well-paid, sustainable, new-economy jobs,” says Bruen.
Women Who Weld — a nonprofit organization that has been funded both through REI’s Student-Led, Faculty-Guided and Co-Learning projects — has pursued that same goal by giving unemployed women, some of whom may be homeless, the opportunity to learn about welding, career development, and communication skills. “It’s a springboard for personal and professional development,” says Samantha Farr, one of the project’s founders. After completing Farr’s REI-funded workshops, all of the participating women were able to find employment, and one of them began working toward a degree in welding at Washtenaw Community College.
Richardson places a high priority on partnering with female and minority entrepreneurs and others who haven’t had exposure to entrepreneurship. Of the businesses that CUEED works with, 70 percent are minority-owned and 62 percent are women-owned. Through one of CUEED’s flagship projects, the Entrepreneurship Pioneers Initiative, first-generation entrepreneurs receive financial coaching, marketing assistance, and customer development strategies.
Entrepreneurs with businesses that aren’t “flashy” enough to attract typical venture capital investors are embraced by CUEED, says Richardson. Whether it is a tech startup or a skilled photographer with no business training, he believes that a burgeoning business in an urban neighborhood provides a path toward community revitalization. “We are shining a light on the fact that entrepreneurs play important roles in communities by paying local taxes, hiring local people, supporting the local little league teams and charities, and participating in local civic affairs,” Richardson says.
Bruen believes that growth from inside a community can be an alternative for neighborhoods that are withering as they wait for big companies to bring jobs. With this in mind, she urges local entrepreneurs to “remember those who do not have a voice, … those who lack the money, education, or power to influence change” and to create an economic transformation from within.
In the end, both Bruen and Richardson hope their students graduate with a better understanding of and a commitment to the vulnerable communities around them.
“I think most of the students who work [in REI] have never been exposed to poverty,” says Bruen. “I hope they leave knowing that economically stressed communities actually exist in Michigan and that assisting them requires compassion and a long-term commitment. … I hope they will want to make a difference in [these places] once they graduate.”
Shepard believes many CUEED participants will make a difference, whether it’s by serving these communities or by starting a business of their own. “Not all students seek to serve the community; … however, working with CUEED certainly plants the seed that urban entrepreneurship is a necessity and an achievable possibility.”●
Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.