The University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Program aims to help turn jobless into entrepreneurs

A few years ago, Reading manufacturer MSM Industries Inc., was struggling to stay afloat amid a recession. So, Bill Sebell, an executive at the family-owned firm, turned to the state's Department of Employment and Training (now called the Departments of Labor and Workforce Development) to help him help his employees through the Workshare Program that paid partial benefits, allowing him to keep people on the payroll at least part time.

However, business conditions continued to worsen at MSM leading the company to close its doors late last year, which put Sebell in exactly the same position as many of his longtime workers - out of a job.

Fortunately, Sebell has now found he can take advantage of another offering from the state agency, the Entrepreneurial Training Program, which trains unemployed workers interested in starting their own business.

Administered through the Workforce Development's department's Division of Career Services, the training program is funded by the US Department of Labor and has helped more than 2,500 unemployed workers receive the tools and training to start their own businesses.

Indeed, one recent class yielded 57 new enterprises in fields as diverse as computer repair, catering, pet care, residential construction, event planning, and paralegal services.

Since the program began in 1989, according to the agency, 75 percent of the graduates who started their own business endeavors remained in business for two years or more.

The program generates more than $2.5 million annually for the Massachusetts economy with each entrepreneur estimated to create 1.8 new jobs.

Each session includes 20 weeks of training divided between 10 weeks of classroom instruction to develop a viable business plan, and 10 weeks of consultation with program staff to execute the plan. Training is provided by six organizations around the state: the Berkshire Enterprises/Berkshire Community College, the University of Massachusetts' Donahue Institute, Northern Essex Community College, Center for Women & Enterprise, Jewish Vocational Services, and Salem Harbor Community Development Corporation. Hands-on coursework is enhanced by advice from outside specialists on accounting, legal services, and marketing.

For his part, Sebell discovered the program just in time to enroll in a class starting March 14 - someone had just dropped out, opening a slot for him. An avid bicyclist, he focused his attention on honing a business plan for launching a line of clothing and accessories aimed at the special needs of cyclists. That included not only design, branding, and marketing plans but also determining what would make his project interesting to venture capitalists and financial backers. His long-term goal is to develop a full product line for his new company - Earth, Wind and Rider - available by spring 2006.

"Right now what I'm concentrating on is launching the product line at the Interbike Show in Las Vegas in September," he said.

Diane Zold-Isenberg, business and professional development programs manager at Northern Essex, says every effort is made to ensure that people with the "right stuff" to become entrepreneurs get into the program. First, individuals come to an information session to find out the details of the program. All individuals who submit an application are interviewed by the program instructor, who determines whether they will be accepted.

Deciding factors include the viability of their business idea, the individual's ability to complete the rigorous program and launch the business, and "program fit" (whether the program will fit the needs of the candidate and whether the candidate will fit well with the balance of the class, ensuring there aren't potentially competing businesses in the same class).

Michael Olfe, a counselor in the entrepreneurial training program at Jewish Vocational Services, says his organization began offering the program in March 2004. And with class size limited to 15 there are often up to 10 applicants for every seat. An average of 75 percent of the trainees are "positive outcomes," which means they start businesses or become employed within the 20-week period.

"Training is a 'mini-MBA' program - using a case-based approach, trainees methodically develop a written business plan," Olfe said.

In the 10th week, the trainee does a formal stand-up presentation of the business plan before a panel which may include small business specialists, investors, and/or bankers. The panel may question any aspect of the plan and the trainee must defend it. Training includes essentials for every small business, such as market research, sources of financing, accounting, and state and federal employment laws and regulations.

Barbara Mohrman, an environmental consultant with 25 years of experience, has nothing but good things to say about her experiences. Faced with bleak job prospects in the environmental field, she joined the program in the spring of 2004. Mohrman says it was a lifeline.

"I needed to rethink where I was going and I also had an idea for a business," she explained. Her project, which has resulted in a business called In the Bag LLC, based in Charlestown, was aimed at producing an organizer bag for business women.

And while Mohrman admits the business has been less robust than she had hoped, she says she has learned a lot and continues to refine her efforts. However, she adds, "No matter what I do, the things I learned about business through the program will always be of value."

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