A Business Incubator for Jobless, Wannabe Entrepreneurs

Jessica Stillman, INC
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Kim lives just outside of New York City. But her story will sound familiar to many folks all around the country.

After being employed at a large financial services firm for most of her career, several years ago—amid the general economic turmoil—she found herself out of job and unable to find another gig on par with her previous post. Unemployment benefits helped bridge the gap, but she needed a longer-term solution. Her job-skills were apparently no longer in demand. But Kim had another gift—the ability to make some pretty great homemade jam.

Enter New Jersey non-profit Intersect Fund and its latest program, Entrepreneur University. The organization was founded by a pair of Rutgers University students, Joe Shure and Rohan Mathew, who were both impressed by the drive of the folks they met in their local community of New Brunswick. They were also troubled by the poverty of the area and the disparities along lines of race, gender, and origin they observed there. But rather than just idly complain or write the odd sociology paper on what they saw, Shure and Mathew decided to do something about it.

"The fact that people who were hardworking and had good ideas were struggling to start businesses frustrated me," Shure told "I have a lot of small-business owners in my family, so I've seen the good things that can come from starting a small business. A lot of folks are great at baking cakes but they don't know what a profit margin is. If we can combine a person's talent and their drive with some basic business knowledge, then we're creating an entrepreneur with potential."

To make sure that everyone, including Kim, is armed with the tools they need to go from amateur baker to budding business owner, The Intersect Fund offers small loans, business coaching, and, most recently, Entrepreneur University, a crash course for New Jersey residents on unemployment benefits. It explains the basic mechanics of starting and running a small business--and the state picks up the $899 tab for the course.

But as Shure notes, the object of Entrepreneur U isn't simply to spread the basics of how to write a business plan or keep books. It's also to close the confidence gap that keeps many people from pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams in the first place.

"A lot of people who have a business idea see the process of starting a business as overwhelming. They know that's there is a lot to do. They know that there are certain regulatory issues that you have to address. They know you have to write a business plan. Quite often those vague ideas become barriers because they form anxiety in people. To some extent it's a confidence gap," says Shure.

"People assume that the process is beyond their capability, but then when they learn a little but more about it, they realize that they can start a business. They realize that registering a business is not that hard, and they find out that the real hard part is going out there and finding customers," he says, explaining that it's his job to make sure his students go out and talk to customers.

"The riskiest part of a business's life is just before the first sale is made because people are too scared of actually going out and doing anything. If we can break it down for people and say here's what you have to do and urge them to go take the first step, they're much more likely to succeed," says Shure.

Apparently, the class worked for Kim. Her young jam-making business is already profitable. She explained in an email that Entrepreneur U helped her set prices and be more knowledgeable about finances and marketing. "My business is growing very well," she reports, and "in fact I hired my first part-time employee this summer."

That's two fewer unemployed folks in New Jersey thanks to Entrepreneur U. But there's plenty more work to do, according to Shure.

"Research shows there are about 24 million micro businesses with five or fewer employees in the U.S. and some studies estimate that as many as ten million of those lack access to adequate capital, business training and networking opportunities, so there's a huge untapped potential here," he says.