Area women get a BOOST
Margaret Costello Spillett
Ten women in the Syracuse area received certificates of completion for their participation in a new program aimed at teaching displaced homemakers marketable technology skills. The program, called the BOOST Initiative (Bolstering Original Opportunity and Self through Technology), is a joint effort between the Women’s Opportunity Center of Syracuse and Women in Information Technology (WIT), a student group at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies.
(Pictured: iSchool student Katharine Posner G’09 receives feedback from participants in the BOOST Initiative during an end-of-semester event at the Women’s Opportunity Center in Syracuse.)
The event on Nov. 19 was the culmination of a yearlong effort by iSchool students to create, test and implement a curriculum designed to give women the skills needed to re-enter the workplace or to start their own businesses.
Five participants attended the event after completing courses in Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Outlook and Internet researching. Each of the five courses involved hands- on lab work, with iSchool students teaching and serving as lab assistants.
The attending participants all indicated that they would take more courses through BOOST if they were offered. Susan Dischiave, iSchool professor of practice, WIT advisor and BOOST founder, said that the program may expand to include courses in QuickBooks, databases and more advanced Microsoft Office skills in coming semesters.
This fall’s BOOST graduates also expressed interest in helping to shape and advance the curriculum in the future. Because the participants were of all ages and came from many different backgrounds, the BOOST classes were often collaborative. The participants with more technology experience helped those who were struggling with the labs. Katharine Posner and Patricia Vargas-Leon, WIT members and BOOST organizers, invited this first round of graduates to come back and become computer lab assistants in the spring.
While the BOOST program taught participants solid technology skills, participants walked away from the year-end event with more than their new skills. Two local female business owners spoke at the event, offering attendees the insight and inspiration needed to succeed.
Jill Hurst-Wahl, an iSchool professor and owner of Hurst Associates Ltd., shared her story about opening her own business. She was inspired to take this step after several years in a job she didn’t enjoy. “At that point, I’d worked for one truly phenomenal company, and one company that I didn’t really like,” she says. “That’s a 50/50 odd. If I went to work for another company, I’d have about a 50/50 chance of working for someone I’m not going to like. And I didn’t like those odds. But I like me. If I want to be happy, I’ll work for myself.” Shortly after that realization, Hurst-Wahl started her own business in 1998.
Hurst-Wahl also stresses the importance of having a strong support system when you are starting a business. It’s essential to have advisors and people in your corner “to pat you on the back every once in a while,” she says. “But make sure you also have one critic.”
While only a few of the women at the event had considered opening their own business, Hurst-Wahl encourages women to stay open to the idea. She says that every business today represents someone following their dream. “Explore your ideas,” she says. “But if it doesn’t work out, that’s okay, too.”
Linda “Sparky” Mortimer, owner and chef of the Sparky Town restaurant, 324 Burnet Ave., Syracuse, also spoke at the event. Her restaurant has been in business for about nine months and serves primarily organic, local and vegetarian cuisine. She shared some of her business struggles with the BOOST participants and also suggested some resources to help new business owners develop their business.
Mortimer attended the Syracuse Entrepreneur’s Bootcamp and made connections with SU’s South Side Innovation Center to improve her business skills. “The South Side Innovation Center is a great resource,” Mortimer says. “And I felt like I was on the right track, being connected with SU.”
After years of hard work, Mortimer says that she is meeting her goals for the restaurant. “I’ve done what I set out to do in my original business plan,” she says. Although, it has not always been easy, Mortimer believes in the power of positive thought. “I try to find the good in every day,” she says.
During the event’s open forum portion, organizers, instructors and participants discussed the program’s strengths and weaknesses and how the curriculum could be improved in coming years. The participants said the classes had a good ratio of lab assistants to students and were well organized.
Rosanne Huff, BOOST graduate, describes herself as a hands-on person, and says that the format of the classes fits her learning style. “What I loved about it was when they started to get the SU students coming in, because then when I was having problems they were able to help me as much as I needed,” she says.
Dischiave, Posner and other BOOST organizers say they hope to take some of the participants’ ideas and use them to improve the program. The BOOST team itself may also be getting a boost with a new volunteer. “I received an interesting phone call a while ago,” says Kiki Raposo-White of the Women’s Opportunity Center. “A lady called to volunteer here, and she worked for 15 years at Microsoft.” Raposo- White adds that her expertise will be a welcome addition to the program.
The BOOST Initiative is made possible in part through an Enitiative award. Enitiative is funded by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, Mo., focusing on entrepreneurship in the arts, technology, and our neighborhoods. To learn more about Enitiative, visit http://www.entrepreneurship.syr.edu.