Innovators

From Unemployed to Small-Business Owner

How a New York state program helps out-of-work people start businesses while still collecting unemployment insurance.

Shutterstock
April 10, 2015, 2:58 a.m.

Dani­elle Bliss already had an ink­ling that she wanted to do something dif­fer­ent with her ca­reer when she got laid off on New Year’s Eve in 2010. For the pre­vi­ous five years, she’d been work­ing for a na­tion­al tele­vi­sion sta­tion in New York City, do­ing on-air an­im­a­tion for the sta­tion’s overnight shift. In her spare time, she took let­ter­press-print­ing classes: a nice, cre­at­ive hobby for an art-school gradu­ate.

After Bliss lost her job, she spent about a month look­ing for oth­er full-time gigs closer to her ho­met­own in up­state New York, with no suc­cess. Then, through the loc­al un­em­ploy­ment of­fice, she learned about a New York state pro­gram that al­lows un­em­ployed work­ers to start small busi­nesses while still col­lect­ing un­em­ploy­ment checks. She thought, Why not? “Maybe this is what I’m sup­posed to do,” she re­mem­bers think­ing. “Maybe this will be the best thing for my fu­ture.”

So in early 2011, Bliss en­rolled in New York’s Self Em­ploy­ment As­sist­ance Pro­gram. Run out of the state Labor De­part­ment, the pro­gram is meant to train people who are likely to ex­haust their un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits on how to be­come small-busi­ness own­ers. The loosely struc­tured pro­gram re­quires its par­ti­cipants to take 20 hours of classes that teach them how to write up busi­ness plans, to track their pro­gress, and to ul­ti­mately launch a busi­ness.

Par­ti­cipants can col­lect un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits for a max­im­um of 26 weeks while they go through the SEAP pro­gram. That’s not a huge amount of time to plow through the lo­gist­ics and bur­eau­cracy as­so­ci­ated with open­ing a small busi­ness, say past par­ti­cipants. Still, it does give people a little bit of a fin­an­cial cush­ion. “It gives you re­sources, money, and the push you need to do it,” says Mina Mar­sow, an­oth­er SEAP gradu­ate and own­er of Pro­spect Gym­nastics in Brook­lyn. “When you’re un­em­ployed, it is so hard to get out of bed in the morn­ing, be­cause you just have all of this time.”

Too much time on one’s hands is not the typ­ic­al ex­per­i­ence of an un­em­ployed per­son en­rolled in SEAP. Bliss, for in­stance, spent her days scram­bling to com­plete the check­list needed to open her let­ter­press-print­ing busi­ness. She took sev­en small-busi­ness classes at a loc­al com­munity col­lege, in­clud­ing mar­ket­ing and ac­count­ing. She worked with a busi­ness coun­selor to draw up a busi­ness plan, ap­plied for a sales-tax-ID num­ber, and found stu­dio space in her hus­band’s uncle’s house for her massive print­ing presses.

She paid for the start-up costs and classes out of her sav­ings, while still col­lect­ing a weekly un­em­ploy­ment check and not hav­ing to look for an­oth­er job. (Typ­ic­ally, un­em­ployed in­di­vidu­als are not al­lowed to both work and draw be­ne­fits.) “The SEAP pro­gram doesn’t hold your hand. They give you a check­list of things you need to do to stay in the pro­gram,” she says. “But it gave me the struc­ture to know where to go.”

Twenty-nine-year-old Mar­sow had a sim­il­ar ex­per­i­ence as a SEAP en­rollee. The Brook­lyn nat­ive lost her hu­man-re­sources man­age­ment job in Oc­to­ber 2013; as a young pro­fes­sion­al, she as­sumed that she would eas­ily find work be­fore her six weeks of sev­er­ance ran out. When she still had not landed a job and found her­self col­lect­ing un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits, she learned about SEAP.

As Mar­sow star­ted to re­search small-busi­ness op­por­tun­it­ies in her Brook­lyn neigh­bor­hood, she real­ized that Flat­bush did not have any gym­nastics gyms. She had be­come in­volved with the sport as a child and even taught at Man­hat­tan’s Chelsea Piers while she was in col­lege. Sud­denly, she had the germ of a busi­ness plan to hoist her­self out of un­em­ploy­ment. On March 3, 2014, Mar­sow opened Pro­spect Gym­nastics to teach tum­bling and gym­nastics to chil­dren and young teen­agers. “I def­in­itely learned from this ex­per­i­ence that I want to be an en­tre­pren­eur and not work for any­body,” she says. “I don’t see my­self go­ing back to be­ing an em­ploy­ee.”

So far, roughly 9,500 New York­ers have gone through SEAP. A re­cent pa­per out of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Hamilton Pro­ject called at­ten­tion to its mer­its. Evid­ence from a sim­il­ar pro­gram in Mas­sachu­setts showed that al­low­ing people to col­lect un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits while open­ing up a small busi­ness “can help the un­em­ployed trans­ition in­to pro­duct­ive un­em­ploy­ment, and can do so cost-ef­fect­ively,” the pa­per says.

Oth­er states, in­clud­ing Delaware, Mis­sis­sippi, New Hamp­shire, Ore­gon, Rhode Is­land, and Ver­mont, have offered these types of pro­grams at dif­fer­ent times, de­pend­ing on the fund­ing. The New York Self Em­ploy­ment As­sist­ance Pro­gram is set to ex­pire in Decem­ber 2015; a spokes­man for the de­part­ment says SEAP has been re­newed five times since it was first im­ple­men­ted roughly 20 years ago.

Bliss counts her­self among the sat­is­fied par­ti­cipants. By June 2011, roughly six months after her lay­off, Bliss had opened her busi­ness: Wish­bone Let­ter­press. She designs everything from wed­ding in­vit­a­tions to greet­ing-card lines, cal­en­dars, coast­ers, and oth­er hand-prin­ted goods, selling her wares on­line, at craft shows, and whole­sale to stores like Urb­an Out­fit­ters. The writer and cre­at­or of the HBO series Girls, Lena Dun­ham, even pos­ted some of Bliss’s note­cards on her In­s­tagram feed — a huge so­cial-me­dia boost for Bliss and her com­pany.

Bliss says that she now has so much work that she’s on the verge of need­ing to hire an em­ploy­ee. “I feel like I am do­ing something that is an ex­ten­sion of me,” she says. “I work all of the time, like 60 to 80 hours a week, but I love what I do. I really don’t mind.”

What We're Following See More »
BARR PLANS TO SEND CONGRESS A SUMMARY
Mueller Report Almost Done
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

“Attorney General Bill Barr is preparing to announce as early as next week the completion of Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, with plans for Barr to submit to Congress soon after a summary of Mueller's confidential report. ... The preparations are the clearest indication yet that Mueller is nearly done with his almost two-year investigation. The precise timing of the announcement is subject to change. The scope and contours of what Barr will send to Congress remain unclear.”

IN UNANIMOUS DECISION
SCOTUS Limits State and Local Governments' Ability to Levy Fines
4 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"The U.S. Supreme Court curbed the power of cities and states to levy fines and seize property, siding with a man trying to keep his Land Rover after he pleaded guilty to selling drugs. The unanimous ruling marks the first time the court has said that states and cities are bound by the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines, part of the Eighth Amendment."

Source:
AFTER U.S. WITHDRAWS FROM INF TREATY
Putin Threatens Arms Race
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Moscow will match any U.S. move to deploy new nuclear missiles closer to Russia by stationing its own missiles closer to the United States or by deploying faster missiles or both, President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday. Putin said Russia was not seeking confrontation and would not take the first step to deploy missiles in response to Washington’s decision this month to quit a landmark Cold War-era arms control treaty."

Source:
MAY 26-28
Trump to Visit Japan
5 hours ago
THE LATEST
AVOIDS SHUTDOWN WITH A FEW HOURS TO SPARE
Trump Signs Border Deal
4 days ago
THE LATEST

"President Trump signed a sweeping spending bill Friday afternoon, averting another partial government shutdown. The action came after Trump had declared a national emergency in a move designed to circumvent Congress and build additional barriers at the southern border, where he said the United States faces 'an invasion of our country.'"

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login