June 11, 2012 | last updated June 11, 2012 12:11 pm
Q&A

His $1 million gift is a bet on entrepreneurship

Q&A talks with Carlton Highsmith about his decision to donate $1 million to Quinnipiac University in support of an entrepreneurship program.

Q: You're the vice chairman of the Quinnipiac University Board of Trustees and recently donated $1 million to accelerate the School of Business' innovations in entrepreneurship. Why was that? What made you want to support entrepreneurship? What are some of the innovations we might expect?

A: I have been a longtime supporter of entrepreneurship because of its power to transform the lives of individuals, their families and their communities. The wealth created for business owners; the jobs created for workers and the neighborhood stability that all result from a vibrant small business community are extremely compelling reasons to support entrepreneurship. People sometimes forget that some of the world's greatest and most admired companies were all started by entrepreneurs, including Procter&Gamble, Johnson&Johnson, McDonald's, Microsoft, Ford, United Parcel Service, and SC Johnson, etc.

Q: You are the retired vice chairman of PaperWorks Industries of Philadelphia, the third largest integrated recycled paperboard company in North America. You were also the founder, president and CEO of the Specialized Packaging Group Inc., which merged into PaperWorks in 2009. Did you learn to become an entrepreneur or did you come by it naturally?

A: Principles of entrepreneurship can indeed be taught. Any smart, confident, self-motivated and passionate individual can become a successful entrepreneur with the right kind of training and coaching. I spent nearly 10 years as a corporate executive before launching my entrepreneurial career in 1983. With time and experience, and learning from your mistakes, you come to realize what it's going to take to become really successful as an entrepreneur. It's going to take tenacity, self-sufficiency, self-confidence and a mastery of the skills specific to your particular product, service or industry. It's also going take enormous problem-solving skills and the ability to absorb setbacks and disappointments.

Q: As part of the announcement, Quinnipiac also said that it will partner with the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT), to establish the ConnCAT Entrepreneurial Academy, where inner city youth will learn how to launch their own businesses. Not to sound indelicate, but why the focus on inner-city youth? Why not just youth in general?

A: For several reasons. First, ConnCAT is located at Science Park in New Haven and the center's focus is on New Haven urban students. Secondly, the unemployment rate for minority urban teenagers is nearly double that of the wider population. Thirdly, the poverty rate in New Haven and Connecticut's other major urban areas is depressingly much higher than in surrounding suburban communities. Fourth, the wealth inequalities between minorities and whites are greatest in Connecticut's urban communities. Fifth, the drop-out rates are significantly higher in Connecticut's urban communities than in surrounding suburban communities. The Federal Reserve Bank data is conclusive on this point and that is, besides home ownership, the greatest generators of wealth for Americans is business ownership. So, with the significant decline in home ownership over the past several years and stubbornly high unemployment rates among the urban poor, a reasonable, viable and alternative way to begin to close these wide disparities in income and wealth is through business ownership. Our focus should be directed, in my view, toward those areas of greatest need and vulnerability.

Q: An interesting part of that program is Quinnipiac students will serve as mentors to the inner-city youngsters. Does serving as mentors help college business students find mentors when they enter the business community?

A: It is hoped that those inner-city students being served by Quinnipiac University students will become inspired and motivated by their mentors; that these young students will gain an appreciation for the transformative power of entrepreneurship and business ownership; that they will gain new skills and grow in confidence; and, most importantly, that many of the perceived barriers to becoming a successful business owner can be torn down and eliminated by educating about the realities of starting and running your own business.

Q: What type of entrepreneurs are best going to serve our economy going forward? What will programs like the one you help fund with your endowment do to develop those entrepreneurs?

A: Those entrepreneurs who develop and perfect the most resonating value proposition designed to serve the un-served or under-served needs of the local consumer and/or business will be the ones that will thrive in the years ahead. Whether in the service sector or in the products that consumers and businesses use, innovation and excellence in delivery will become the drivers of the successful small business in the years ahead.

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