Entrepreneur shows success can happen for anyone
NEW HAVEN >> Tucked into the generic brick façade of the Science Park complex of New Haven sits a colorful, unsuspecting nonprofit.
Neon green writing and three brightly colored dots underscoring the name are the only indication outside of the brightness and vibrancy of the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT).
Executive Director and President of ConnCAT, Erik Clemons, said he fought hard for this spot inside this complex.
“I have always thought that my story could have only been realized in New Haven,” Clemons said.
Clemons has worked to bring his story and the story of the residents of New Haven to light for the past year.
He has done so through the work of ConnCAT.
When its doors opened in June 2012, residents of New Haven could enroll in two adult education programs focusing either on medical coding skills or phlebotomy; which Clemons said are two skills highly desired by nearby Yale-New Haven Hospital. As for the children, an after-school program was made available that provided youth a creative outlet whether they were interested in theater, spoken-word art, hip hop dancing, recording music or a host of other opportunities.
“It is not hype or the next new thing. It is true service to the community where we are preparing adults to re-enter the workforce,” said Opal Harmon, executive administrator to Clemons. “It is an outlet that would otherwise be unavailable to the population we serve.”
Clemons said that the community in general was not receptive to the idea of ConnCAT at first and the building being placed in the Science Park complex.
“There was a resistance to the idea of the community members being allowed in its [Science Park] gates,” Clemons said.
For Clemons, opening this nonprofit in Science Park was not his first hurdle. Working as a postal worker in the Stamford Post Office for 16 years, Clemons’ path to becoming the executive director of ConnCAT presented many obstacles.
Growing up in the projects of New Haven, Clemons’ mother became a single parent when he was 12. The family moved to Stamford and his mother was left to care for Clemons as well as his brother and sister.
“I was also raised by the community,” Clemons said. “After high school, I was ill-prepared to go to college, went for a semester, ended up not doing well and found a job instead.”
Clemons began his work at the post office at this time. During his time there, he got married and fathered four girls.
“Around the 12th year, I said to myself ‘what have I done, what was my contribution, what have I done for other people?’” Clemons said.
As a result, he decided to go back to college and pursue a degree in sociology. For Clemons, he said this made his schedule become a marathon.
“I worked early in the morning at 6 a.m. in Stamford, worked til 2:30 p.m., came home, picked up my girls from school, took them wherever, went to class in the evening,” Clemons said. “I did this for three years.”
During his senior year, a program known as LEAP (Leadership, Education, Athletics and Partnerships), a year-round community- and school-based program for children of New Haven living in high poverty urban neighborhoods that works for positive academic and social outcomes, came into his life.
“I always wanted to teach and work with young black boys since they for the most part were growing up and living in the same conditions I grew up in,” Clemons said. “I had never even heard of LEAP before.”
Clemons worked in LEAP’s after-school program at the Timothy Dwight School in New Haven.
“It took a great deal of humility to intern with young folks at LEAP and he did whatever we asked him to,” said Che Dawson, director of LEAP when Clemons was there and current director of school operations at the Amistad Academy. “He did some tasks that involved high-order thinking but also did things such as put together bookshelves and did both graciously.”
Following graduation, Clemons continued work at the post office in Stamford but kept up his connections at LEAP.
“His time didn’t end when his internship did,” said Tomi Veale, who was Clemons’ supervisor at LEAP and is the acting youth services director for the city of New Haven. “He would come onsite and the kids would love to come and talk with him at the front of the cafeteria where we worked.”
It was a golf tournament run by LEAP that moved Clemons toward the next chapter of his life.
Clemons was seated next to a man who was on the board of directors at LEAP and they began discussing Clemons, his time at LEAP and his life. At the time, Clemons said that LEAP had few to no African Americans on its board of directors.
“They later called me and asked me if I would be willing to be on the board,” Clemons said. “I had no idea what I was getting into and didn’t understand the profoundness of this question.”
Clemons quit his job at the post office and “with the permission” of his wife, began work as a student teacher.
“I was making no money and my wife supported me and everything I did,” Clemons said. “I like to say she signs every permission slip.”
Clemons said he served on the board of directors for a few years and still dreamed of becoming a teacher. LEAP eventually asked him to become the new executive director.
“I said yes, I loved it, I had no idea what I was doing but I knew why I was doing it,” Clemons said. “What was important to me was that the children and young people saw someone who looked like them, who had a profound and intense love for them and who they ultimately could become.”
In February 2011, Clemons was approached by Bill Strickland, who built and started the national model for Center for Arts and Technology known as the Bidwell Training and Manchester Craftsman Guild in Pittsburgh more than 40 years prior, as well as Carlton Highsmith, who was spearheading the ConnCAT initiative, while they were searching for an executive director and president for the new Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology.
The two were looking to replicate Strickland’s model across the country and in Connecticut after the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and Strickland’s organization completed a feasibility study started in 2009 that deemed the New Haven a community in need of such a model.
“I recall at that first meeting that Bill and I had with Erik that we really didn’t talk much about the job, but talked more about the work that needed to be done to begin to reinvigorate and transform the urban landscape of many American cities, including New Haven,” Highsmith said.
Highsmith added that they discussed models deployed across the nation in cities to alleviate issues of poverty, crime, unemployment, high drop-out rates among other things.
Clemons was not hired right away. Highsmith and his advisory committee were still raising money for the organization but once their fund goal was reached and they received their 501(c) 3 designation from the Internal Revenue Service, plans were put into motion to build the space for the nonprofit and Clemons was hired in June 2011.
As construction began on the building, Clemons began to piece together his staff. Clemons was the first African-American executive director of any branch of Center for Arts and Technology and he said he wanted to hire people who were unemployed for his team.
“What I am most proud of is that everyone that works here was unemployed most recently,” Clemons said.
“I wanted to prioritize social entrepreneurship and create jobs where we were training folks for jobs.”
Clemons began the process of recruiting clients once the building was complete.
Leaders of the organization conducted church information sessions, and attended other community events. Clemons said it was difficult at first because no one knew what they were doing and why they were there.
“I quickly wanted to cultivate relationships to let people know it was built for them,” Clemons said. “People had a difficult time trusting me but I think we now see the fruits of our labor because now everyone wants to come here.”
“The community has embraced ConnCAT as belonging to them, as we hoped they would,” Highsmith said. “A meeting place for the exchange of ideas, a place where the arts can be celebrated, a place where new skills and new technologies can be learned but most importantly a place where hope can be instilled within those within our community where hope has been lost.”
ConnCAT is now operating their two adult programs, as well as a youth program.
The youth program was begun in September 2012 and focused on the Harlem Renaissance. . It started with 30 students who had been identified by guidance counselors in their respective schools as struggling or simply looking for a creative outlet.
This summer, ConnCAT enrolled double what it did last fall. This fall the program will have 80 students involved.
The adult programs were chosen after talks with Yale-New Haven Hospital, a primary employer in the city, as to what jobs they were most likely to hire people for.
Their medical coding program runs for 30 weeks with an 8-week externship and the phlebotomy program runs for 16 weeks with a 4-week externship.
“We are not only training them in a skill but we have a holistic approach to their life, their career,” Clemons said. “We are training them with employability skills such as financial literacy skills.”
People who wish to enter the program go through an interview process with the ConnCAT team and if accepted, are given a personality assessment to address the barriers in their life that Clemons said most training programs miss.
“We strive to make sure that individuals are work-ready,” said Odell Montgomery Cooper, manager of career pathways at ConnCAT. “When you find individuals coming from urban environments or who were underemployed for years, they need work readiness skills.”
Clemons said they are trying to lessen or even eliminate their clients’ dependency on the state Department of Social Services.
Clemons said that 75 percent of their clients have found jobs in medical coding or phlebotomy within one year of completing the program.
“When you have an adult learner who is 20-something and they have never had a resume before and they have one in their hands that reflects who they are and what they have done, speaks to their skill set and they can go on an interview, that is an emotional thing,” Cooper said.
Clemons said they are looking to expand the Center for Arts and Technology model to other cities in Connecticut.
Their adult program is also possibly going to be expanded to more types of training programs. Clemons said they are talking with Yale about their need in dining services. As for the youth program, they are starting something known as ConnCAT Frontrunners, which will pair high school students to mentor their students for SAT prep as well as college prep in general. The students will also have a chance to create their own business model through a partnership with Quinnipiac University’s business school.
After finding so much success this year for ConnCAT and for himself over the years, Clemons said he wants people to know they can find success as well.
“Some people think I was born a CEO. I was a mail sorter who dreamed of doing better,” Clemons said. “My intention was only to make my family proud and it wasn’t to be this, this happened to me because I wanted to be more.”
“He [Clemons] not only shines light on some of American’s most challenging issues but presents solutions based on his education and training,” Dawson said. “He uses his experience and life story to inform change for others.”
© 2013 The New Haven Register (http://www.nhregister.com)