College offers SPARK for local students’ goals
Bridget Feeney | Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Thirteen local women jumpstarted their business dreams and career goals this summer, thanks to a program led by the Saint Mary’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI).
Martha Smith, WEI project director, oversaw this summer’s participants in SPARK, its entrepreneurship-training program that began in November.
“SPARK’s goal is to ignite the entrepreneurship fire within,” Smith said.
Women in the training program developed business plans for a flea market, small deli, beauty shop, cleaning service, bilingual daycare, ice cream shop and even a wedding planner.
“SPARK is a comprehensive entrepreneurship course that provides women with general information and practice on how to manage a small for-profit business,” Smith said. “It is offered to community women who have a maximum household income of $21,000 a year. [Participants] must have a business idea in mind and a feasible chance of qualifying for a micro loan. Community leaders, business owners and professionals volunteer to facilitate the course.”
The community leaders who volunteered with the SPARK participants were accountants, bankers, experienced business owners, networking professionals, bookkeeping experts and retired librarians, Smith said.
The professionals and SPARK participants met twice a week for three hours each day, and the 11-week program ran from May 31 to Aug. 11.
These women also had families and other responsibilities, such as part-time jobs, to maintain as well, Smith said.
In order to qualify for entrance into the SPARK program, Smith said the women had to meet certain criteria.
“There is an initial screening session of three hours, and participants have to pay a small registration fee and very affordable tuition to pay for class supplies,” Smith said. “At the end of the course, participants must have a business plan ready.”
Smith said the businesses flourished by the end of the course. Some of the SPARK projects, including a real estate business and a gift basket designer, saw early success.
“[The] wedding planner booked her first wedding before the course was over,” Smith said.
While SPARK is a pilot program and is still under evaluation, the women continued to receive guidance after the end of the 11 weeks.
“There is a one-year support period,” she said.
Despite the program’s success, Smith said it was not always easy along the way.
“The most challenging aspect for me was organizing ideas and input from various sources and recruiting over 35 volunteers to run the program,” Smith said. “Participants had to make a firm commitment to attend class, to be punctual and dedicate a minimum of eight hours for homework.”
Though the WEI office organized and ran SPARK this summer, professor Susan Vance from the Business Administration and Economics department had the idea for the program and suggested a model.
[Vance and the program’s volunteers] are the true champions of SPARK,” Smith said.