Business accelerator at The Idea Center at Miami Dade College nurtures student entrepreneurs

Communities / Article

Last week’s showcase at the Center for Research and Transformative Entrepreneurship (CREATE), a venture accelerator program at The Idea Center at Miami Dade College, suggested a microcosm of entrepreneurial South Florida. 

The presentations by the student entrepreneurs included ideas ranging from the eminently practical to the poetic. They featured apps for learning languages, finding what to do in South Florida and managing parking, but also bibs for toddlers. There was an app to monitor and verify home health care services and a plan for a co-working place for trainers but also a project to turn a park in downtown Miami into an open-air public music lounge.

“We hear the term ‘accelerator’ thrown around. It’s one of the buzzwords these days,” said Wifredo L. Fernandez, director of the center, a 16-week program open to Miami Dade College students in all disciplines. “But while we want these businesses to flourish and make millions of dollars, the point for us is that [the student entrepreneurs] have the tools, the mindset and the skills to pursue their ideas and develop their solutions. This isn’t a pitch competition. This is a celebration.”

Participants are identified by Fernandez—“No more than 10 at a time,” he notes—and enter the program with their business ideas at different stages and with different needs. The presentations, restricted to 5 minutes, not only offered quick descriptions of each project, but also tantalizing glimpses of the spirit and personal stories of the students. The Idea Center is funded in part by Knight Foundation as part of its efforts to invest in South Florida’s emerging innovators and entrepreneurs.

Thelson Richardson, who has developed Direct Dialect, a Web and smartphone app for self-teaching yourself languages, actually has a degree in accounting, is a licensed real estate agent and is studying business. He had the idea of creating his own language program after being disappointed by language software he saw advertised on television. The experience, he said, reminded him of a summer vacation his family took to Haiti, his parent’s homeland. His older brothers, who were born in Haiti, spoke the local language, kreyol. Richardson, born and raised in the United States, didn’t.

“So my grandma had a little shop and every time I wanted something I had to ask my mom or my dad or my brothers [for it],” he recalled in conversation after the showcase. “So I had to find a way [of asking on] my own. So I would ask my brother to get me something and I would hear how he did it: ‘Sil vou ple sim ka pwa yo cola’ (‘Can I please get a soda?’) in kreyol, so now I knew the ‘Can I please …’ form and by changing the subject I would develop phrases. I was 4. I didn’t even know how to read.  … When I saw the commercial it got my gears going because I knew exactly what I needed to do to speak a language.”

Richardson knew little about programming or coding so he “went online and took tutorials on how to build things. And step by step, by building up the product, I learned how to program. I wanted to be an investment adviser at one point, but decided that I wanted to create my business. Getting a job nowadays is very hard, so creating your own business is key.”

It is the kind of drive and resourcefulness the program wants to support, says Fernandez.

 “Imagine when he gets the right advisers, people who can help him out with a little bit of funding. The drive, the hustle, the creativity, the innovation and ingenuity is there, so it’s on us to help him connect the dots.”

Yida Hernandez, a Miami Dade College business student who won the Miami Foundation’s Public Space Challenge to create an outdoor public music space, approached the center as “a way to better develop the project.”

“I felt it would be a great opportunity to learn from [Fernandez] and… from peers working towards the same goal: establishing a project, seeing it through fruition and launching it successfully. All our projects are very different but we all shared the same passion for entrepreneurship,” said Hernandez, who was also a 2015 Knight Foundation summer intern.

In fact, the work with the center was instrumental in finding a new location for the project, says Hernandez. Sound Garden Miami was originally slated for Bayfront Park but “after a lot of deliberation, we determined it was not the right location,” she says. The project is now being developed at Paul S. Walker Park in Downtown Miami and is scheduled to open this fall.

Miami native Taj Mohamed, a father of two, working part time and carrying a full load of courses, created, developed and is manufacturing Toppy Toddler, a line of waterproof bibs.

His revenue was only in the hundreds of dollars before he entered the program, notes Fernandez, so the work was “about strategy and marketing, bringing manufacturing back home and thinking about his brand.” Income projections are now trending up.

Mohamed says he entered the program with a lot of information, but not quite knowing how to put it together.

“In the outside world I can speak to my friends about business for a minute and then we are off on to something else,” he says. “Here there’s insight and feedback from my classmates. These guys are smart and have great ideas.”

The participants meet as a group once a week and then individually with Fernandez during the week. The activities at the center include a group discussion in which the members share information and ideas and also hear from local entrepreneurs.

If there is one defining characteristic to be accepted into the program “it’s the hustle,” says Fernandez. But that should be accompanied by determination, he adds. “A lot comes down to discipline. It is one of the foundational skills that the college emphasizes. That’s why I like to see [the center] as a leadership program. We want them to be leaders.”

Fernando González is a Miami-based arts and culture writer. He can be reached via email at [email protected].