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College-based programs spark new era in microenterprise

The stark contrast between the haves and have-nots in New Brunswick, N.J., prompted Rohan Mathew and Joe Shure — then students at nearby Rutgers University — in November 2008 to launch the Intersect Fund, which helps low-income people gain a toehold on economic stability as entrepreneurs.

"We saw people hungering for skills to improve their businesses and to provide for their families," said Mathew, 24. He and Shure, 23, now have graduated and serve as the fund's co-executive directors.

The fund, which is affiliated with Rutgers and uses both paid staff and student volunteers, is one of a growing number of college student-powered groups working in the field of microenterprise and microfinance.

The Mott Foundation is a longtime funder of the microenterprise sector, including $190,000 in grants since 2008 to the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute's Microenterprise Fund for Innovation, Effectiveness, Learning and Dissemination (FIELD) for the study, support and development of college-based initiatives.

Such programs show that "students can offer valuable services to microentrepreneurs in their communities and that microentrepreneurs value those services and benefit from them," said Elaine Edgcomb, FIELD's director.

"Clients see students as gatekeepers to real knowledge," Edgcomb said, while students get "an opportunity for real world exposure and real world work."

And, she adds, the students' leadership and participation as volunteers helps to keep costs down and innovations on the rise, thereby strengthening the programs' overall sustainability.

"It's amazing to see how some of these student efforts are growing and providing services," Edgcomb said.

Since its launch, the Intersect Fund has served more than 150 clients and offered about 50 micro-loans, making it among the largest of roughly a dozen such student-run enterprises nationwide.

Gretchen Campbell, a 52-year-old mother of three, is among those who have completed Entrepreneur University, the fund's nine-week course in business planning.

With a small loan to help Campbell boost her credit rating, her fledgling sewing business has boomed since she graduated from the program in June. Among other contracts, she won the rights to use the Rutgers emblem on her decorative pillows, with 20 percent of her proceeds pledged to charity.

Campbell credits the fund with her success.

"They taught me the things that I needed to know in order to run my business," she said, including developing a business plan, growing her business connections and marketing her products to potential customers.

If the Intersect Fund has one of the largest client bases, the Elmseed Enterprise Fund in New Haven, Conn., earns distinction for the longest-running.

Yale University students started Elmseed off-campus in 2001 and it became a Yale affiliate in 2008. Today, the program uses campus facilities for its business training classes and client consultations. It has served more than 200 clients over the years.

"Elmseed empowers local businesspeople to start or expand their enterprises, helps them create sustainable livelihoods and engages students in helping the community," said Elizabeth Bershad, Elmseed's CEO, a 21-year-old senior who has volunteered for the program since she was a freshman.

Innovation is also growing among the college-based programs, with several experimenting with various financial products and services for low-income people.

For example, the Capital Good Fund, born out of Brown University in Providence, R.I., provides loans to help legal immigrants pay citizenship application fees and become permanent residents. And the University of North Carolina's Community Empowerment Fund is testing savings products to help homeless microentrepreneurs obtain permanent housing and launch small businesses.

While most college enterprise groups focus on domestic programs run by student volunteers, the University of Notre Dame offers a twist with its Microventuring Certificate Program.

The program provides upper-level undergraduate students with class instruction and credit for working as consultants with low-income entrepreneurs who have invested several years in their businesses, but who want to move to the next level. Students also have the opportunity to participate in a nine-week internship with a non-governmental organization, based either in the U.S. or abroad, working in the field of microenterprise.

"For students, it helps them put concepts into action and they become doers," said Melissa Paulsen, an instructor and manager for the program.

FIELD continues to study the college programs and supports a core group of leading initiatives, called the Campus Microfinance Alliance, to bring best practices to their peers.

"A lot of these organizations are still fairly new and many of them need to learn not only how to implement their services, but also how to sustain those services over time," Edgcomb said.

Mathew, who sits on the alliance's executive committee, said students today "are really hungry for meaningful opportunities outside of classes and especially meaningful service activities."

Indeed, Edgcomb says, student volunteers are the lifeblood of collegiate microenterprise.

"It's a seedbed for the young leaders who will ensure the industry's long-term future."

(Note: This report is provided as a service to our readers and a service to the group or individual mentioned in the release. Usually, only minor editing is done. The group or individual is responsible for all information provided.)

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