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Jobless gets help with starting up own firms

August 19, 2014

COVENTRY— A program through the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (RIDLT) is designed to assist people receiving unemployment insurance (UI) benefits in starting their own business and has helped a Coventry resident get back to work. The Self Employment Assistance (SEA) Program gives entrepreneurial training and mentoring services to help unemployed claimants start their business idea.

Susan Reynolds, of the Hopkins Hill community, has been collecting unemployment benefits for roughly six months since her position at her previous job was eliminated due to the business downsizing. She was previously working in the purchasing department of a manufacturing company for several years and was blindsided when she was laid off.

In May of this year, Reynolds was informed of an opportunity that would lead her back to into the workforce by opening her own business. The SEA program not only provided workshops, one-on-one mentoring and legal guidance needed to open a business, it allows participants to continue receiving UI benefits until their business starts profiting, a maximum 26 weeks.

The SEA program has an application process which requires UI beneficiaries interested in the program to complete. Someone may also apply if they have been identified as most likely to benefit from specialized reemployment services through a notification letter the RIDLT will send out. The letter will instruct the recipient to call a SEA counselor at one of the following netWORKri Career Centers in the state including the Providence, Woonsocket and West Warwick locations.

Eligibility requirements include UI beneficiaries with at least 13 weeks remaining in their benefit year and must have a viable business idea. The applicant is required to attend an orientation on the SEA program followed by a one-on-one meeting with one of the several trained counselors.

If an individual believes they are eligible for the SEA program, they could also contact a counselor at the netWORKri locations for a consultation. After the consultation, those interested in participating in the program must attend a Reality Check Workshop at the Center for Women & Enterprise location in Providence where they will receive an SEA application. Only after the workshop can a candidate submit an application.

In 2013, the RIDLT was awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor totaling approximately $160,000 that funded the SEA program. Partnering with the Center for Women & Enterprise (CWE) was a perfect fit for the SEA program and Chief Public Affairs Officer, Mike Healey, said the CWE existing services provided great training for all of the participants. The CWE has been helping women start and grow a business since 2000 by providing services and programs to educate those with the fundamentals in entrepreneurship. Any UI beneficiaries that want to participate in the program can be both male and female and the CWE acts as a foundation for anyone looking to start a successful business.

“CWE is out partner and their talented staff members focus on the nuts and bolts of running and starting a business,” Healey said. “The RIDLT is acknowledging that not everyone who loses a job necessarily wants to get back into what sector or career they might have been in when they lost their job and some people might have an entrepreneurial spirit that they want to pursue.”

There are many services given to the SEA participants such as many resources and information to start a business, business plan development courses, expert guest speakers that may include tax attorneys and marketing specialists and financial guidance that will be useful with a business’s success. Midway through the training program, the individual will be assigned a business mentor to assist and support with entrepreneurial guidance.

“Successful companies and organizations adjust to business cycles and are constantly positioning themselves for their next opportunities. Successful workers do the same thing — they spot opportunities and prepare to seize them,” DLT Director Charles Fogarty said in a press release. “In the same way, DLT is innovating to respond as quickly as we can to the needs of the workforce. The SEA program has shown us that for the right cohort of UI claimants, entrepreneurship training can be an important alternative to traditional re-employment training and services.”

The business idea that Reynolds came up with is a virtual assistant and secretarial support to entrepreneurs and small businesses. She plans on handling their email, website updates and even bill pay for business owners who may go on vacation or need more assistance in their daily tasks. Virtually the Best Solution is the name of Reynolds home-based business that she plans on officially opening Oct. 1, 2014.

“The 25 years experience in a financial administration position will be put to good use,” Reynolds said. “The SEA program is a great experience and there is definitely a lot more to opening a business then I ever knew.”

The biggest challenge for Reynolds currently is getting fiber optic security through an insurance company as she will be dealing with people’s financials with credit card and bank account information. It is steps, such as this one, that was taught to Reynolds through the SEA program that she would have otherwise not known about.

Reynolds explained that she would be involved with the program four days a week for four hour increments for three weeks, where she learned how to take her business idea and make it a business plan through research on the industry. For the next six weeks, she received direct feedback on her plans from mentoring with successful Rhode Island business people whose career experience matches her chosen career pathway. At the end of the program, a ceremony will be held to honor all of the students and they will present their business models to all in attendance.

“I will primarily use social media to directly market to vendors and businesses that I worked with in the past and that could use my experience,” Reynolds said. “I am going to try to start local with Kent County and Washington County businesses.”

The SEA program, overall, has been a wonderful experience for Reynolds and she said the people she was working with were collaborative and helpful while providing invaluable resources and support to start a business. She is currently in the last week of the program.

The RIDLT wants claimants to view their time on unemployment as a full time job, according to Healey, and because the training in SEA program is very intensive, they are waving the requirement that the UI beneficiaries must be in an active work search, as long as they are participating in the program. For as long they are included and participating in the program, they don’t need to look for a job because they are ultimately trying to create their own career pathway.

Recently, Director Fogarty announced he will use money from DLT's authorization from the Fiscal Year 2015 State Budget to extend the SEA program for another year, at a cost of about $100,000.


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