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MOB program's professionals mentor low-income youth in entrepreneurship

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Kevin Wortham, entrepreneur who co-founded Minding Our Business.
Kevin Wortham, entrepreneur who co-founded Minding Our Business. - ()

Qaysean Williams learned entrepreneurial skills as a student of the not-for-profit Minding Our Business program in the early 2000s, which opened a world of opportunity and spurred him to open a luxury clothing line.

A Trenton native, Williams traces his success to the sponsor- and grant-funded program whose mission is to change the lives of low-income youth and their communities through entrepreneurship. Students learn from business leaders about writing a business plan, managing money, hiring employees and producing a product or service.

Corporate sponsors include AT&T, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Investors Bank, Janssen, Mercer County, Rider University College of Business Administration and Walmart.

Williams recalled taking a trip to New York and learning about a world of commerce he had never seen. He’s gone on to create an online luxury fashion brand, Manikin.

“I learned I could make my own products,” said Williams, who operates his business from Trenton. “What I created could turn into income.”

Born with an ailment in one arm, Williams uses his healthy arm to create custom garments. He is not deterred by his physical limitations.

“I got the nickname ‘The One-handed Sewing Man,’” Williams said, chuckling. “I create everything from gowns to shoes to streetwear. Manikin appreciates individuality. That is a key element of our brand. … I bought a sewing machine and learned how to thread it.”

He earned an associate degree from Mercer County Community College in fashion merchandizing and is currently studying fashion studies at Montclair State University, set to graduate this year.

"There is a lot of untapped talent. MOB opens their minds and shows that they can succeed in business, government, or any other walk of life."

Dwaine Williamson, The Williamson Law Firm attorney and MOB volunteer.

Now a board member of Minding Our Business, Williams showcases his fashion designs on Instagram at ManikinMOB.

Founded in 1997 by Rider University marketing professor Dr. Sigfredo Hernandez and entrepreneur Kevin Wortham, Minding Our Business has served an estimated 3,000 students.

Business owners in New Jersey should be attentive to the Minding Our Business program because “it is our obligation to make sure young folks have opportunities to expand their horizons,” Wortham said.

“We give access to kids to explore and express themselves,” he said. “Low-income youth do not have access as their peers do. Business owners are concerned about the next generation of young folks.”

Minding Our Business interacts with New Jersey businesses through networking events. Its challenges are finding money to continue operating its programs, which cost $375,000 annually.

Minding Our Business is currently serving students in Trenton, Perth Amboy and Asbury Park via three educational and mentoring programs focused on experiential learning.

A 12-week after-school program provides hands-on instruction to approximately 135 Trenton middle-school students each spring on the process of starting and running a business. A four-week summer program offers 35 students entrepreneurship training and mentoring at Rider University.

An advanced program lasts for 10 months and offers business coaching for students who need additional support to make their businesses sustainable. The program is held at Rider, which in addition to classroom space offers access to some of its faculty.

Minding Our Business also partners with volunteers throughout the business and professional community.

“I have been interested in helping young people in Trenton,” said Dwaine Williamson, an attorney at The Williamson Law Firm LLC who volunteers with the program and mentors students. “Ownership of the means of production is the keys to success.

"We give access to kids to explore and express themselves. Low-income youth do not have access as their peers do. Business owners are concerned about the next generation of young folks."

Kevin Wortham, entrepreneur and co-founder of Minding Our Business

“Young people are the most influential in our society,” he continued. “I think it is beneficial that we have young people learn to manage their own businesses. They decide what products look like and that extends to every walk of life. There is a lot of untapped talent. MOB opens their minds and shows that they can succeed in business, government, or any other walk of life.”

Another mentor is Reggie Hallett, whose family owns 1911 Smokehouse BBQ in Trenton. He also provides food for Minding Our Business events and hosts a cigar fundraiser to benefit it.

“High school kids have six weeks to devise a business plan,” Hallett said. “Their minds are pretty amazing. I am a chef. When I was in high school, I did not know about culinary colleges. MOB is showing youth that if they have a plan that they can go for it.”

The Rev. Rupert Hall of Turning Point United Methodist Church in Trenton mentors students at that city’s Luis Munoz-Rivera Middle School.

Before becoming a pastor, Hall was a commercial banker for five years and practiced law for 25 years. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, he wants to connect with the students.

“I bring the perspective of what does it mean to rely on yourself rather than an 8-5 job,” Hall said. “I tell these kids their dreams are possible. They need a plan to get started. They do not have money. Where do they start? There are instances of people with a lot of money but without a plan.”

He encourages students to ask questions. 

“We are developing a relationship with the kids and showing we are interested in their success,” Hall said. “I see a marked change from the beginning. We are competing against the interest-grabbers of social media.”

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David Hutter

David Hutter

David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at dhutter@njbiz.com.

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