Conference To Help Local Entrepreneurs Build Business Skills

Yale student Eli Bildner’s first job was to ask wealthy people for money to support worthy causes. When he got to Yale, he decided he would rather raise funds for poor but ambitious businesses in New Haven.

Bildner - who may have inherited his knack for raising monies from his parents, who are prominent fundraisers for Yale - is now executive director of Elmseed Enterprise Fund, a microcredit organization run by Yale students, and now counsels and makes small-scale loans to budding entrepreneurs in the city.

“Elmseed creates self-sustainable entrepreneurs and I find that is a rewarding way to do social good,” says Bildner, a junior in Davenport College.

“We teach people to fish rather than give them fish,” explains Daniel Petkevich, a freshman in Saybrook College, one of 30 volunteers who run Elmseed.

The organization will put that philosophy into practice on Saturday, Feb. 7, when it joins with JUNTA for Progressive Action - the oldest Latino non-profit organization in New Haven - to host the 2009 New Haven Entrepreneur Development Conference, a day-long skills-building and professional development conference for local entrepreneurs.

The Elmseed Enterprise Fund has helped dress designers, hot dog vendors, seamstresses and even clowns start up businesses with loans of less than $1,500. Once the initial loan is paid back, the new businesses are eligible for increasingly higher amounts of money up to $10,000. Even though Elmseed does not run credit checks on clients, they have had a loan default rate of just 9% since the non-profit organization was founded in 2001 by a group of Yale students.

The fund’s volunteers are currently working with eight clients from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and have $8,300 in outstanding loans.

Microfinancing was popularized by Muhammad Yunus who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work with rural poor in Bangladesh. Many community groups have adapted the concept to urban areas in the United States. Elmseed is one of the largest such university-run micro-lending agencies in the country and recently helped Rutgers University students start their own organization.

The Feb. 7 conference, which will be held 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. in both Linsly-Chittenden Hall and Dwight Hall, will offer training in the areas of accounting, small business expansion and legal strategies for small companies. Notable speakers will include Constance Bagley, a professor in the Practice of Law and Management at the Yale School of Management; Dennis Brown, vice president of the Connecticut Community Investment Corporation; and representatives from Community Accounting Aid and Services Inc. and the Small Business Legal Services Clinic at the Yale Law School. All workshops and activities will be offered in English and Spanish to bring together an increasingly diverse group of small entrepreneurs operating in the New Haven area.

Bildner said Elmseed is not quite self-sufficient, which means that he finds himself going back to raising funds.

“I know we can put it to good use here,” he says.

For further information about the Feb. 7 conference, call (203) 687-4590 or send e-mail to lynn.wang@yale.edu.

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