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Despite being the largest city in New Jersey and one of the busiest transportation hubs in the United States, Newark has experienced its share of social and economic turbulence over the last decade. Most recently, the 2008 recession sent unemployment soaring in some sections of the city.
However, those challengers haven’t deterred a city that’s determined to reclaim its reputation as a hotbed for business and entrepreneurial growth. Newark’s leaders know that their success driving that revival hinges in large part on how effectively the city supports the its next generation of business leaders — today’s students.
Newark is home to more than 50,000 college students enrolled in a variety of different institutions, including a business school, medical school, dental school, and law school associated with Rutgers University; Seton Hall Law School; and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Many of the city’s recent economic development efforts have been targeted toward either high school or college students.
With more than 42,500 students attending public school in Newark, the city has been working hard to create more opportunities for its younger, underserved residents through programs that help students envision a future that includes college and a well-paying job.
In 2010, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg saw the potential in Newark and decided to invest $100 million to improve the city’s public school system. Zuckerberg has touted the benefits the program has delivered to the city, including increasing graduation rates from 56 percent to 69 percent in the first five years.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, the son of the late New Jersey-born poet and equal rights activist Amiri Baraka, has advocated strenuously for better support and funding for the city’s public schooling system, which educates 60 percent of the city’s student population. Cognizant of the growth of charter schools in the city—and the increased allocation of funds to them—Baraka managed to draw in $27 million in additional state funding for the current school year, the first time in four years that the district saw an increase in aid.
This past summer, Baraka launched a youth employment program that connects high school students not only with job opportunities, but also with educational resources, mentors, and college campuses. With support from organizations ranging from Wells Fargo to the Foundation of Newark’s Future, the program allows students to work at 200 different sites in the public and private sector, while also receiving mentorship and training on subjects such as using financial tools and developing workplace skills.
“We have brought together Newark businesses, philanthropies, colleges and universities, financial institutions, the White House, the Newark Public Schools and the city to create a unique public-private partnership,” Baraka said in a press release. “This [program] is about vastly more than giving kids a paycheck and keeping them off the street for the summer. We are preparing our youth for success in college and in the workplace.”
Earlier this year, Newark was selected as one of the White House’s 16 Summer Impact Hubs, which is an initiative that helps enhance employment opportunities and reduce crime in 16 communities across the country. More than 2,700 young Newark residents participated in this past summer’s program, which ran from July to August.
The Kauffman Foundation-founded Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) also runs a 30-week intensive course for students in middle school and high school who are interested in entrepreneurship. The program, which has many chapters across the country, takes participating students through the entire business creation process: from drafting a business plan to pitching potential investors and registering with government agencies. The Newark Regional Business Partnership (NRBP) sponsors the program.
Downtown Newark’s University Heights has quickly become fertile ground for entrepreneurial growth. And no wonder: Newark students are less than 30 minutes away from New York City, one of the world’s foremost entrepreneurial hubs and financial centers.
During his tenure, Mayor Baraka has focused on creating local jobs and retaining entrepreneurial talent in Newark through programs such as the Newark City of Learning Collaborative (NCLC). The organization aims to increase the proportion of city residents who achieve higher education from the current 17 percent to 25 percent by 2025.“If we build the people, the people will build the city,” Baraka said at a launch event at Rutgers University in 2015.
The initiative brings together dozens of non-profit organizations, educational institutions, and large companies such as Prudential Financial and Audible, both of which have their headquarters in Newark. Housed in the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers University – Newark, the program is focused on bringing in different stakeholders, from college students to CEOs to the Mayor. The campaign invites college students from Newark to be role models for high school students considering post-secondary education.
Another program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), the Interdisciplinary Design Studio (IDS), teaches students the ins and outs of tech entrepreneurship. Housed under NJIT’s Undergraduate Research and Innovation arm since 2011, the program helps teams of students work with various faculty advisors and industry mentors on projects that they think could make good businesses.
Past student projects have included interactive learning toys for autistic children, devices that monitor elderly people who live alone, and non-invasive technology that measures diabetes patients’ glucose levels. Students learn how to commercialize their products and launch their own companies, which can then sometimes move on to NJIT’s local business incubator, the Enterprise Development Center (EDC).
The idea is to create an ecosystem of entrepreneurship. “When you mix those students together and guide and encourage them, they’ll ultimately create technologies and start-up companies that spur economic growth,” said Michael Ehrlich, former entrepreneur and assistant professor of finance at NJIT.
Ultimately, the many education and entrepreneurship initiatives popping up in Newark over the past five years are an indication of the city’s commitment not just to enriching the lives of its local students, but to fostering a more robust community for entrepreneurship and laying the groundwork for Newark’s continued economic revival.