The RiseUP Group (Executive Director Matt Conway second from left) at the fifth annual Cocktails for Change Gala. (Photo courtesy Nick Caito, Hartford Courant)

Founded in 2012, the RiseUP Group provides young adults from urban communities in Connecticut with tools and guidance to help them become business and community leaders.

Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price met with RiseUP Executive Director Matt Conway at the Lighthouse in Hartford, one of the organization’s housing initiatives, to find out more about the social enterprise and its impact on the community.

NAN PRICE: Have you always been entrepreneurial?

MATT CONWAY: It’s funny you asked. I was working at Aetna while I was an undergraduate at University of Connecticut. One day my boss and I were talking about my future. I remember he said, “You are an entrepreneur.” At the time, I thought: Oh no, I don’t have any good ideas.

NAN: What changed?

MATT: I always saw myself in a leadership role at a big company. But his comment stuck with me.

After graduation, I had a job lined up at GE Capital in Stamford CT. Before I started, I had an opportunity to work at Weaver High School in Hartford doing a workforce ready program with more than 40 kids who got paid through a grant with Blue Hills Civic Association. It was my first experience working with inner-city schools and it helped me realize I wanted to do something more impactful for the community.

I started a mentoring program with a couple friends from UConn, which eventually became the RiseUP Group. We started working with 12 juniors and seniors from Weaver High. We helped them with college prep, scholarship applications, and went on weekend adventures.

NAN: Let’s talk about how things have evolved.

MATT: The program eventually morphed into RiseUP University, which is an after-school program that helps students identity their passion, improve their academics, and prepare for college or a career. We’ve leveraged partnerships with local colleges, universities, and corporations, which have created opportunities for our youth.

Of the original RiseUP University cohort, 95% have gone on to college, trade schools, or the military and we’ve raised more than $1 million in scholarship money.

Another way things have evolved is, about two years ago, I partnered with Yovel Badash, the author of No Child Held Back, which focuses on purpose-driven education. We decided to join forces to better serve the community.

When we first started brainstorming, we were still involved with high schools, working on getting the No Child Held Back philosophy taught at school and getting kids developing a purpose plan. Eventually, we came up with four elements to really help a community:

  1. A housing solution
  2. An education solution
  3. A work or social enterprise solution
  4. Support or family services

We started piloting different initiatives under each of these four “legs of the stool.” We now have four properties in Hartford: the Lighthouse, the Dreamhouse, the Powerhouse, and the Harmony Condo. To complement our housing solution, we created Handy Vision, which provides job training and opportunities for individuals in the community.

NAN: From a startup perspective, what have you learned that you hadn’t expected?

MATT: As a young entrepreneur, I’ve learned the importance of finding resources and people who can help you along the way.

You can end up having a lot of balls in the air at once and they’re hard to juggle. I wasn’t anticipating the amount of time and resources it takes to nurture all the relationships to build an idea into a point of sustainability.

But I realized I had to put some ideas on hold or create a plan to go after them later. That was a tough realization, because you always want to stay motivated. You never think you’re doing enough, but sometimes doing too much can burn you out. That’s something many people warned me about, but it’s nothing you can understand until you’ve experienced it.

NAN: Sound advice. Care to share any other inspiration for others on their entrepreneurial journey?

MATT: Sure. The hedgehog concept from Jim Collins’ book Good to Great is the implementation of a strategy that satisfies three questions:

  1. What are you most passionate about?
  2. What you can be the best in the world at?
  3. What drives your economic engine?

This concept has helped RiseUP get back to our core mission of “empowering youth to be the catalyst that uplift and inspire their community.” Moving forward, we’re putting all our effort into launching a new cohort of RiseUP University scholars.

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