The community is our business

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Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

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Just over a year ago, Christopher Rodriguez had a problem with his car—his father’s 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee, that is. The CD player was fritzing out, and Rodriguez, then a new driver and a sophomore at South Bend’s Marian High School, was tired of it. So he did what most enterprising teenage boys would do. He bought his dad a “birthday gift,” grabbed some tools and installed it himself.

Now 17 and ready to start his senior year, Rodriguez has a confession to make. “I guess it was a way to buy myself a gift, too,” he admits. But the real gift was something more lasting than a primo car stereo system, which became evident when the new player blew out a speaker and Rodriguez had to install a new set of those, too. He didn’t see it at the time, but the seed of a prize-winning business idea was germinating in his head.

While family and friends invited him to install equipment in their vehicles, Rodriguez took on another summer project: A one-week entrepreneurship camp hosted by Notre Dame’s Robinson Community Learning Center (RCLC). Within a week, the young tinkerer with a passion for cars had a business plan for a full-service customization shop.

Rodriguez was one of hundreds of local teens, many from difficult backgrounds, to take part in the RCLC’s business programs last year, says Luther Tyson, the center’s associate director for technology and lead entrepreneurial instructor. Most of these students take a basic financial literacy course in the fall at Robinson or at Washington High School on South Bend’s west side. Many continue with the spring entrepreneurship course Tyson teaches at the RCLC, located on Eddy Street south of campus. Tyson encourages the most motivated students to enter Notre Dame’s annual Invention Convention Youth Business Plan Competition.

With one-on-one help from ND student mentors, eight students made it to this year’s final round, where the plan for Rodriguez Audio Specialists took first-place honors and a $500 cash prize provided by the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies of the Mendoza College of Business. Students with plans for a barber shop and a party-planning service also earned recognition and cash, while two other future business leaders won awards for “most innovative idea” and “best presentation.”

Feasibility was key, explains Jessica McManus Warnell, a Mendoza instructor who oversees the partnership between Robinson and Gigot. “We’re interested in developing young people’s interests and abilities and, in the final competition, rewarding those who could readily translate their plan into a feasible small business venture.”

In Rodriguez’s case, “feasible” first meant scaling down his original idea into a plan for a home-based car stereo business with low labor costs and friendly customer service. The judges—Notre Dame MBA students—liked his ability to secure free advertising on Sabor Latino, a nonprofit Spanish language radio station where Rodriguez has family connections.

If business plans judged in the competition’s first six years are any indication, Tyson cautions, Rodriguez’s venture will fold within the year. But succeed or fail, he says the short-term bottom line is beside the point. “I tell them, you’re going to go through two, three, maybe 10 businesses before you find one that works for you.”

Students come back for advice and tell Tyson about new businesses they’ve launched at college. Meanwhile, Tyson and RCLC director Jay Caponigro ‘91 have worked to build Robinson Enterprises, which bankrolls some of the teens’ business expenses and provides basic bookkeeping and training in everything from sales to tax prep. In February, the center announced a $282,000 earmark from the U.S. Small Business Administration to develop Robinson Enterprises, secured by Representative Joe Donnelly ’77, ’81J.D., and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh.

For Tyson, who won Teacher of the Year honors from the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship in 2005 and 2007, the intangible benefits of the program are more important. Parents report improved behavior at home. Teachers tell him that “kids who were previously unmotivated or delinquent start changing their ways” and show interest in business classes. “It’s kind of fun to watch people grow,” he says.

Teens aren’t the only ones to benefit from the wealth of entrepreneurial knowledge and experience housed at Mendoza. Faculty and students in the Gigot Center’s nascent social entrepreneurship and microventuring program advise adult entrepreneurs in South Bend and in developing economies around the world.

Rodriguez’s goals include turning a $4,500 profit this year, graduating from high school with a B average and enrolling in Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. He’s off to a solid start. “Right after the competition, [someone] came up to me and said, ‘This and this is going on with my car, can you help me with it?’ It was another contestant, actually.”

Christopher Rodriguez photo by Matt Cashore

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