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  August 28, 2000

Program for Teen Entrepreneurs
Makes Hope Part of its Business

Back in 1997, if you had asked Omar Acosta where he wanted to go to college and what major he planned to pursue, he might have laughed at you. Back then, Acosta was just another Hispanic kid from the 'hood. He grew up without a father, and his mother, who speaks only Spanish, struggles to take care of her family.

Kids like Acosta don't have much from which to fashion dreams.

"You try to find a summer job," he says. "You want to earn some money so you can help out your family. You hope you can find work doing something fun." Maybe, only maybe, you hope to learn something.

"I never thought about going to college," adds Acosta, who lives in Hartford. "It never occurred to me that I had a chance."

But today, Acosta says, "I want to grow up to be the best husband and father I can be. To do that, I need to get a good education and a good job." Weighing his options as he embarks on his final year at Hartford's A.I. Prince Technical School, he dreams of attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he might major in mechanical engineering, though aerospace engineering also tweaks his rapidly expanding imagination.

Over the past three years, a world of hope and possibility has opened up for Omar Acosta and a group of other young people like him who come from disadvantaged neighborhoods and homes. And they owe that hope to a UConn initiative cited by the U.S. Small Business Administration last year as a national model of excellence in minority business development, one of only six such programs nationwide.

Positive Choices in Life
The Teenage Minority Entrepreneurship Program began in 1997 with an appropriation of $300,000 from the Connecticut General Assembly initiated by then-Speaker of the House Thomas Ritter, a Hartford native.

"The program was set up by the Connecticut Small Business Development Center as a two-year demonstration project," explains Paul Hughes, who directs the program.

"The goal is to encourage at-risk teenagers from the Greater Hartford area to make positive choices in their lives through exposure to self-employment. We aim to give students a sense of hope, a sense of personal responsibility, and real-world job skills to help them achieve their dreams. The idea is to help these youngsters get a sense of what kind of life is possible for them if they stay in school or return to school and go on to higher education."

The program runs year-round and all participants are encouraged to attend weekly Saturday morning classes throughout the school year. Indeed, "what sets this program apart from school-based entrepreneurial programs or summer programs is its 12-month, multi-year commitment to helping youth," says Hughes.

For all participating students, however, the program begins with an intensive summer session for which they are paid and during which they are introduced to the notion of entrepreneurship. The session begins with intensive job readiness training, including presentations from business owners who serve as role models. The students then participate in "job shadowing" exercises during which they visit supporting companies that provide opportunities to see a wide range of workplaces and work experiences.

The final week of the summer program is spent at a "camp" on the Storrs campus, where students use the resources of the School of Business Administration to complete business plans that they present to a panel of bankers on the program's final day.

"As the flagship of Connecticut higher education, UConn has responsibilities to all of the state," says Mohamed Hussein, a professor of accounting, who has run the week-long summer "camp" each of the three years since the Teenage Minority Entrepreneurs hip Program was launched. "It's important for us to help all of the state's populations become more productive. It's part of our mission."

To help ensure the program's success, Hussein has guided the focus of the summer camp toward less classroom education and more hands-on use of computer technologies that students enjoy using and learning about as they complete their business plans.

The Measure of Success
Though popularity is hardly the only measure of the program's success, Hussein notes that this year many more of the program's participants are currently in high school. Attracting high school students and encouraging them to stay in school are key goals of the program.

Indeed, encouraged by the results of the program's first two years, UConn provided $150,000 last year to extend the initiative for a further year. Hughes said the program is currently pursuing a number of possible sources for future funding.

There are also other - more striking - measures of the program's success.

Three-quarters of the 76 participants during the first two years came from economic and socially disadvantaged families and nearly 30 percent were not connected with any school when they joined.

Yet of those who had dropped out of school before joining the program, 73 percent returned to school, completed their studies or graduated. Several have already gone on to college. Four more are enrolling in college this fall. And many who had previously never considered going to college cite the week-long entrepreneurial camp at UConn as motivating them to consider college a viable option.

Omar Acosta was one such student. Following a site visit to Prototype Plastic and Mold in Middletown, he was offered a summer job that has turned into a year-round part-time position providing him with a steady income and a valuable learning experience.

"I've been involved with many youth programs," says Acosta. "The Teenage Minority Entrepreneurship Program is the real thing. It has given me real skills to help me achieve my goals."

Jim Smith