Darden Grad Kick-Starts Dreams


Toan Nguyen (MBA ’94) struggles with his emotions when he speaks of his efforts to help small-business owners with little money but big dreams.

“I came to America from Vietnam when I was 14,” he says. “The reason I made it is people helped me … People like Richard Zeleznock, my high school math teacher, John Ryan, my mentor in my first career as a photographer, and Leslie Grayson, my professor when I was at Darden.”

Downtown CharlottesvilleNguyen, the owner of the popular C’ville Coffee in Charlottesville, is the prime mover behind the launch of Community Investment Collaborate (CIC), an organization that offers business education and micro-financing to the owners of small startups — many of them in minority neighborhoods.

“The best way to move up socially and economically is to start your own business,” says Nguyen. “The problem with that is having access to capital.”

The other problem is learning the basics of business. CIC helps aspiring entrepreneurs with both.

Hebah Fisher, the director of the CIC program, says 18 Charlottesville area entrepreneurs are enrolled in the inaugural 14-week program, launched in April. Experienced local professionals lead the classes in topics such as business risk and financial and marketing strategy.

The startups include a handyman co-op, an alternative taxi company for low-income and handicapped city residents, a disc jockey business, a beauty salon and a Middle Eastern restaurant.

Besides basic business knowledge, the entrepreneurs will have access to cash. Most new small businesses can’t otherwise qualify for loans via traditional methods. When CIC’s students complete the course, they can apply for small loans — approved by a loan committee — and administered by CIC.

Nguyen says Virginia National Bank, and a number of other area banks, are building a loan fund for the budding business people. “It’s the whole community getting behind this,” says Nguyen. “And this isn’t a handout. This is an investment. You have to pay it back with interest.

“CIC has been very successful because of the community’s support, including from the Darden community,” says Nguyen. “Wendy Brown (MBA ’93) and Philippe Sommer, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, have been instrumental in the formation of CIC and are board members. Additionally, Alec Horniman, Killgallon Ohio Art Professor of Business Administration, donated funds to CIC and Kathryn Sharpe has students from her class working with our entrepreneurs.”

Sharpe, an assistant professor of business administration at Darden, says 70 of her students are teaming with the CIC class members. They will determine “if there really is a market for the entrepreneurs’ businesses.”

“It’s the most excited I’ve ever seen my students,” she says. “It’s not about the grade, but about doing good work.”

Nguyen says he believes the Darden students “are being transformed by these entrepreneurs. It’s a two-way street. It’s a powerful thing when you touch real lives.”

And he says the  program will bring hope to neighborhoods that need it most. “If you don’t hope,” says Nguyen, “you don’t have anything.”

For questions or information, contact communication@darden.virginia.edu or a member of the Communication team.

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