Pitt program designed to give urban entrepreneurs the skills to succeed

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The enthusiasm and conviction that help small business owners bring million-dollar ideas to life rarely generate a million dollars. More often, entrepreneurs that start off full of high octane energy sputter to a halt once profits, new clients and overall growth hit a plateau.

Hoping to jump-start businesses that got off the ground but never reached the height of founders' aspirations, the University of Pittsburgh Katz Business School's Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence created the Urban Power to Prosper certificate program.

Modeled after the StreetWise MBA program, created by Boston-based small business support organization Interise, the program gives entrepreneurs a nine-month course on core principles such as leadership, financial management, sales, marketing and resource management.

Toward the end of the course, entrepreneurs take part in a final session where they work with instructors and professional mentors to create strategic growth plans specific to their businesses. Mentors also are assigned to work with business owners for one year after graduating the program to help put the growth plans into action.

Eligible business owners who are screened through a detailed application process must work in one of Pittsburgh's inner city neighborhoods or in an urban area within the region, must have run the business for at least three years, must have full-time employees beyond themselves and must generate at least $300,000 in annual revenue.

The program, which is funded in part by foundation grants, costs participants $1,500.

Urban Power to Prosper kicked off its second class in October, after graduating its first class of 10 entrepreneurs a month before.

Graduate Mark Musillo, who runs West Homestead-based plumbing supplies company Musillo Sales Agency, has already checked off several goals on his strategic growth plan, including a move to expand the company's client base to Ohio. He did not share financial figures for the privately owned family company, which was established by Mr. Musillo's parents in 1980, but said the primary goal of his plan is to increase profits 30 percent over the next three years.

Although Mr. Musillo and his sister Marcy Collier grew up watching their parents run the business, they were never introduced to accounting principles that can have dramatic affects on a company's bottom line. Today, rather than checking debt to income ratios or profit margins once a year during tax time, Mr. Musillo crunches the company's financial figures at least once a month.

Mr. Musillo said the targeted financial advice has definitely made an impact, but creating the growth plan is what drove him to actually put the new information to work.

"It made me put pencil to paper to set specific goals and timelines in order to make those goals happen. I have a lot of ideas in my head, but that's all they are: in my head," he said. "I spent a lot of time selling products and working on the day-to-day operations of the business. This program taught me to focus on running the business instead of letting the business run me."

A renewed focus on growth helps more than just business owners, said Christine Kush, associate director of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, She said the Institute chose to work in low-income neighborhoods so that any growth in the form of hiring or expansions would benefit an entire community.

The 10 inaugural graduates -- who operate out of Homewood, the Hill District, Wilkinsburg, Rankin, Munhall and West Homestead -- collectively employ 134 full-time employees and 25 part-time employees. Employees hired in 2011 by the companies saw average salaries of $33,650.

"We felt that the program could help build businesses that are already committed to communities and that would have a positive effect on the neighborhood," said Ms. Kush.

And while there weren't many changes to the program's format for the current group of entrepreneurs, it has definitely shown its own signs of growth, according to instructor Rhonda Carson-Leach. The Institute has partnered with the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania and Urban Innovation 21 to recruit businesses for the program and is seeking additional partners for upcoming years.

After seeing early strides made by previous graduates, Mrs. Carson-Leach said she is more energized than ever to pass the winning formula down to the next class of 16 entrepreneurs.

"We're not doing anything different, but we're doing things better, with more energy, more vigilance and more intensity," she said.

For more information about the program, call 412-648-1806.

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Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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