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Smith program helps kickstart entrepreneurs, aid women’s financial independence

  • KEVIN GUTTING<br/>Detail, the gates of Smith College, Wednesday, August 22, 2012.
  • Kate Hammond is associate director of Smith College's Center for Women & Financial Independence.

Hammond describes working on new packaging for Betty Crocker baked goods. Students chuckle over the company’s famous “just add water” craze.

Her message? “Figure out what annoys you, fix it and then see if you can make any money fixing it,” Hammond said that day.

At Smith, sessions like this are part of helping students gain a deeper financial understanding that can benefit them in their personal and future professional lives.

The center works with a wide variety of students attracted to its drop-in classes and discussions. They range from students who want to know how their credit score works, to those interested in stocks and mortgage loans, to others hoping to create a business model.

Some women come seeking information on small business law.

In January, Robert W. Hyers of the University of Massachusetts ran a weeklong class that provided students with the frameworks to create a business plan and present it to an investor, one of two classes that month aligned with the center.

In the bigger sense, students had come to find ways to bring their voices into the American marketplace.

Late in the week, students worked in groups to brainstorm an idea for a new business and to discuss the logistics of putting it into motion. Topics covered that morning included trademarking, liability and a summary of the ways in which small businesses must forge relationships with the government. Hyers teaches a similar class at UMass.

Many of these students will enter the Draper Business Plan Competition, which offers a $10,000 prize. All Smith students can enter the competition, which will be judged by a panel of venture capitalists and is supported by Tim Draper, whose wife, mother and sister attended Smith.

Hammond says the prize has been “a great way to get people in the door.”

Sabrina Montenegro, a senior from Montclair, N.J., attended Hyers’ class with an interest in starting her own business. An American studies and film major, she sees the decrease in job security in the U.S. as a good reason to consider self-employment. Montenegro said she appreciated the way in which the class forced her to “make up a business plan with students who don’t necessarily have the same interests.”

During the January classes at Smith, business ideas bounced around in student discussions. Ideas included a website similar to Craigslist that would operate internally at Smith and a kit that would allow customers to make their own touchscreens.

The center emphasizes the importance of learning through constructive criticism, Hammond noted, as students bend and shape their business proposals. “The variety of ideas that can come out of two weeks is amazing,” she said.

In January, the center also funded a presentation by members of a panel of alumnae who have had success with their small businesses. In the fall, the center hosted an elevator pitch competition that encouraged both entrepreneurship and concision. Students pitched their business ideas in 90 seconds, presumably to a venture capitalist who happened to be in the same elevator. The program emphasizes the importance of teaching women how to recognize opportunities — and seize them.

Hammond recalled speaking to a female investor in Boston who told her that many women feel hesitant to present their business ideas until they feel completely prepared.

One of the center’s goals, she said, is to encourage students “to take a risk a little bit earlier.”

Taking that risk

In an interview, Hammond shared a story about a student at a neighboring school who missed the deadline and was not able to present at his school’s business plan competition.

After the event, the judges went to a bar and the student followed. He presented his idea to the judges and walked out with $150,000 in pledged funding to kickstart his business.

It only takes one intrigued investor to give a business idea promise and to get an entrepreneur on her feet. “We’re providing students with access and introductions,” Hammond said.

This spring, the center will host a “Lunch and Learn” series in which Hammond and entrepreneur and investor Paul Silva will walk students through the steps of the business plan competition. Also, on April 15 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the college’s Alumnae House, an audience will be invited to hear a series of elevator pitches by students and to give constructive criticism.

Katie Konzen, a junior from Milwaukee, Wis., took part in Hyers’ class. Konzen said she grew interested in business while in high school. At Smith, she is a French studies major who continues to pursue a financial education because she knows it will enable her to be more self-sufficient.

Explaining why she chose Smith, Konzen says, “I knew that Smith would teach me how to use my resources.”

As the center grows and evolves, Hammond said she hopes that in a couple of years, students will apply to Smith because of the strength of its entrepreneurship program.

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