Duquesne program joins effort to help jobless start businesses

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When Daryl Jackson lost his job, his prospects weren't looking good.

After a lengthy job hunt and months of disappointment, the Blackridge resident decided it was time to chart a course of his own.

He went to Duquesne University's Small Business Development Center, which recently got a $100,000 grant from the Small Business Administration's Portable Assistance Project to create a one-year program to help the unemployed start small businesses. This year, the 20-hour training and consulting program, called "Transitioning Employees to Entrepreneurs in Motion," has helped about 35 people become entrepreneurs, and aims to train about 15 more.

Those 20 hours include a number of courses on marketing and business strategy, lessons that hone students' skills so they can eventually create and run their own businesses. Mr. Jackson's goal is to create an interactive multimedia site with advice for parents of children with disabilities.

Mary McKinney, head of Duquesne's Small Business Development Center, said entrepreneurship has proven a viable option for many of the nation's unemployed, like Mr. Jackson, whose job at a home and community services company was phased out in 2011.

Eric Swift, a consultant on the entrepreneurship training program, said unemployment could even provide the ideal context for people to bring business ideas to fruition.

"Now, all of a sudden, they have some time to reflect and evaluate. A lot of people have that dream in the back of their heads, the 'I've always wanted to...,'" Mr. Swift said. "It's sort of like turning the negative of being unemployed into a positive."

For Mr. Jackson, coming up with a business idea was easy. His 27-year-old son, Armon, is autistic, and Mr. Jackson and his wife have had to navigate the challenges that brings largely alone. "When we first heard the word 'autism,' all it came down to was, 'Your son has a disability, so how are you going to deal with that?' " he said.

Programs like the one in which Mr. Jackson participated exist at small business development centers throughout the country, and they've drawn mixed reactions. Some see the programs as a crutch to America's ailing economy, and others see entrepreneurship training as yet another misuse of American tax money.

Natalia Olson-Urtecho, the Small Business Administration's regional administrator who oversees Pennsylvania, along with four other states and Washington, D.C., said the entrepreneurship training programs create about 900 new full-time jobs per year, with each new business generating 1.9 new jobs on average.

Still, a major study into the success of such programs nationally found the programs have no long-term impact on increasing business ownership or on curbing unemployment. Robert Fairlie, a University of California, Santa Cruz economist who co-authored the 2012 paper, said the public entrepreneurship training programs examined in the study typically cost the government about $1,300 per student.

"We've got to be kind of careful about setting up these kinds of programs," Mr. Fairlie said. "It's not a huge amount of money, but it is money that could be spent in another place."

Christopher Hatch, a SBA spokesperson, said each dollar spent by the administration on helping small businesses succeed "results in a return in investment of about $8 put back into the economy."

Mr. Hatch and Ms. Olson-Urtecho said different small business development centers go to different lengths in tracking the success of the companies that grow out of their entrepreneurship training programs.

At the Duquesne center, Ms. McKinney said she monitors how many students eventually go on to create businesses -- a figure Mr. Swift said hovers between about 35 and 50 percent. Her office does not track whether these companies remain in business several months or years down the road.

Regardless, Ms. McKinney said, clients can always return to the center for further assistance if they encounter unforeseen hurdles.

As far as Mr. Jackson is concerned, the Duquesne center has been a helpful resource.

"The program allowed me to move from a sense of fear and failure because I didn't have a job to a sense of feeling really good, not only about myself and the things I was dealing with, but also about moving into and having the energy to think about starting a business," Mr. Jackson said.

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Daniel Sisgoreo: dsisgoreo@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1410 or on Twitter @DanielSisgoreo.


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