Hackett Grad uses own business success to mentor other young entrepreneurs
- June 24, 2012
- Posted by: Brandon Matheson
- Category: Education, Entrepreneurship, Online Marketing
Source: Kalamazoo GazetteOriginal Article here
KALAMAZOO, MI – If today’s college students want a job, they might need to take matters into their own hands.
That’s what Jacques Habra did. Habra, who grew up in Kalamazoo and graduated from Hackett High School in 1992, started his first business before graduating from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with honors in 1996.
“I was working my way through college at Michigan’s computer support labs,” said Habra. In his senior year, Habra created Web Elite, an award-winning Ann Arbor tech company that grew to 35 employees before he sold it in 2002. (Take heart, would-be liberal arts students: He majored in philosophy and English literature.)
Today, Habra, who moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2007, works to help young entrepreneurs follow in his footsteps. He’s the founder of Noospheric, which provides business consulting and start-up investment planning for entrepreneurs, and general manager of First Click, a marketing firm specializing in online and social media tools.
As many as 53.6 percent of Americans under 25 with a bachelor’s degree were jobless or underemployed in 2011 — the highest number in more than a decade, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That works out to 1.5 million people.
“That’s a staggering figure,” said Habra. “What are those students supposed to do? They have to start their own businesses.”
It’s a conclusion that more Michiganders agree with: Eighty-eight percent of those polled by the Michigan Sense of Place Council in June said that entrepreneurship is “essential or very important” for the state’s well-being, and 92 percent believed educational institutions should teach entrepreneurial skills – with 58 percent of respondents believing those lessons should start while students are in middle school.
If communities like Kalamazoo want to keep more of their college graduates, entrepreneurial help needs to begin well before the diplomas are handed out, Habra said. The mentoring programs he’s worked with in California typically begin months, if not years, before graduation.
“Communities that really thrive are those that are integrated,” said Habra. “There’s a real connection point between the academic world and the business world.”
Habra sees similarities between Kalamazoo and his current home of Santa Barbara, in that both are small cities offering a pleasant life within easy driving distance of two major hubs. And he said that Kalamazoo is better positioning itself to capitalize on its location between Chicago and Detroit.
“What I’ve seen when I go back to visit parents and friends is a real evolution,” said Habra. “I see a business community tying itself together. The downtown community is more attractive and involved.”
Habra was born in Beirut, Lebanon. His parents were pharmacists for the Upjohn Co. and, when the civil war broke out in 1976, they moved to Greece, Belgium and finally to Kalamazoo in 1981.
“Kalamazoo was a great place to grow up,” said Habra. “I certainly didn’t leave Michigan because there was something missing, per se. I was looking to change my lifestyle, being an outdoor person.”
Habra said he enjoys paddleboarding, hiking and mountain biking – and still has fond memories of Fort Custer State Park.
His favorite English teacher remembers him as having “a lot of intellectual curiosity. That’s one of my favorite traits in a student,” said Diane Bishop, now retired from Hackett, who pointed out that English is actually Habra’s third language. “When he went out the door, you knew he was going to be fine.”
His parents still live in Portage and his mother, Hedy, now teaches language and literature at Western Michigan University. Her book of short stories, “Flying Carpets,” came out earlier this year.
“I’m so proud of her,” said Habra. “She continues to reinvent herself over the years.”
Habra, who won the Santa Barbara 40 under 40 contest in 2007 and was named Young Entrepreneur of the Year by Andersen Consulting in 2001, participated in the city’s first Start-Up Weekend this year and was one of three judges for the Santa Barbara City College New Venture Challenge, which offered students cash prizes to launch their businesses.
“It’s an awesome opportunity for the students to get real world experience without leaving the academic setting,” said Habra.
That’s where Habra met one of his mentees, Justin Connell, a 20-year-old student who invented a raised, wheeled garden for older gardeners who can no longer get down on their knees. There’s a stand-up version, as well as a wheelchair-friendly design of Gardens on Wheelz for use at assisted-living facilities. Connell threw himself into the venture when he cracked a vertebrae playing basketball and was in a body cast for months.
“I’m 20 years old, starting my own business. I need people who are older and wiser than me to help make decisions,” said Connell, who won $4,000 from the New Venture Challenge and is currently in the second round of auditions for the reality show, “Shark Tank.” “I was drawn to him because I wanted to learn from him. If he’s been this successful, I want to learn from him and see how he did things.”
Before his first TV audition, Connell said Habra put him up at his guest house and helped him work on his audition.
For his trip to Los Angeles, “Jacques gave me the idea to put a garden on my trailer and stop at different assisted living homes,” said Connell, who said that hooking up a trailer to his Prius when he made the journey south resulted in several sales. “He introduced me to the industrial designer I’m currently contracted with.”
“Having that expertise has been really helpful,” said Connell.
Relationship-building is a vital tool for entrepreneurs, Habra said, one that isn’t currently taught at business school.
“We spend so much time on the principles of finance and sales and marketing. We teach our MBAs certain manufacturing best practices,” said Habra, but “in a world of technology, in a world of ones and zeros … developing those core relationships is one of the missing pieces.”
That’s part of what he tries to offer clients, in addition to access to his network of contacts, advice and resources.
“There are two kind of investors in the world,” said Habra. “Those that write a check and hand the check to the entrepreneur, and sit back and wait for quarterly reports. … At Noospheric, we take a very vested approach in the business’ success…. We earn our equity with our investment of time.”
Habra said he considers the person he’s investing in more important than the product.
“The individual you’re backing is the most important aspect,” he said. “You might think you’re offering this product or service to that market. I can guarantee you’re going to make adjustments.”
The people are the constant, he said. He also said that, at the end of the day, entrepreneurship is not about marketing a product; it’s about solving problems.
Noospheric, which comes from a term that means “the unconscious sharing of human thought,” has an different type of investment model, Habra explained.
“We’re engaged as a consultant for three months. At the end of that time, if everyone likes each other and we’re all happy, we’ll buy a small part of the business with the consulting fees,” Habra explained. “We’ve developed eight companies in the last 10 years all on our own, with no outside financing.”
Habra, however, has an offering planned for this fall so that Noospheric can expand, moving to more of an incubator business model. And he’ll be returning to Michigan for more than just family visits. He’ll be taking part in the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan during the fall term.
“Who knows?” Habra said. “Maybe I’ll be backing a few Kalamazoo-based ventures in the near future.”