In November 2019, Goodwin University introduced ENet (Entrepreneurial Network), an 18-college credit certificate entrepreneurship program for underserved populations and those formerly and currently incarcerated. ENet graduates are encouraged to launch their own startups while enhancing their financial independence.

The first ENet program culminated in August 2020 with 11 graduates pitching their business ideas at a virtual pitch event.

Dr. Matthew Connell, Program Director of the Business Administration Program at Goodwin University and ENet Project Director, developed the concept for ENet and feels positive about starting the second cohort, which began November 2020 and will culminate in May 2021.

“I think we hit the outcomes we expected, even adapting to COVID-19,” he says. “We’re constantly revamping the way we interact in the classroom. It’s a college-level class, we expect college-level rigor, but we also have to understand that intelligence doesn’t mean just academic intelligence and a lack of knowing how to navigate academia doesn’t mean you’re not intelligent,” Matt explains.

“That’s been a huge conversation for my adjuncts and me: How do we meet students’ needs without them feeling like they’re incapable of doing the work because they don’t understand how to use the technology? Are they participating in classes? If we were to accept their work outside of the Blackboard learning management system, would the work meet the muster? If so, then why allow technology to be a barrier to the student’s success?” he adds.

One of Matt’s biggest takeaways from the ENet program was helping students build self-confidence and “find themselves,” he says. “Many ENet participants have had business ideas and maybe nobody believed they could do it, they would do it, or they had the ability to do it. We’ve seen a lot students come out of the program thinking: I can do this. I am doing this. I will do this,” he emphasizes.

“The ENet program has provided me with the greatest opportunity to succeed in life,” says graduate Brian Sullivan, who launched an organization called CHAMPS (Creating Healthy Attitudes in Men from Prison to Society). “ENet provides students the tools and support needed to navigate the return to society and to prosper, not just exist,” he adds.

“I feel like the network was successful,” says Matt. “The students stayed together, they helped each other, and they’ve continued to reach out and support each other. In fact, students from the previous cohort are coming into class to work with the current cohort.”

Another thing that’s new for the current cohort is having individuals who are still currently incarcerated take part in class virtually. “A group of students in a Department of Corrections facility using Zoom for educational purposes may be a first for Connecticut,” says Matt.

“There’s never been a time in the state of Connecticut where individuals who are incarcerated are in class with individuals who aren’t incarcerated, whether formally or not,” he adds. “We think it’s the first time in the country there’s a program where a student who is incarcerated then released can continue their education outside of incarceration. Typically, it’s one or the other. If you’re incarcerated, you’re in a program, if you get released during that program, the program ends for you.”

So far, the ENet program has had two participants reenter and maintain the program; Matt projects seeing three more come home during the program.

“Again, it’s that belief,” he underscores. “It’s being a part of a program where people start to see that they can do it. And they’re surrounded by a network of people who believe in them—potentially for the first time in their lives.”

The program provided the right path for Osvaldo “OB” Lugo, who this year—during the COVID-19 pandemic—opened his business LookSharp Barber Shop. “Thousands of people are coming back into the community with their dreams written down on a piece of paper, but they don’t have the right people to make it happen,” he says. “Fortunately, I stumbled on the right people at the right time.”

The educational benefits work both ways for the ENet students and the instructors. As Matt notes, “I learned and continue to learn a ton from the participants.”

He adds, “We’re experiencing individuals going through a rigorous academic program while dealing with the struggles of transitioning back to life on a hard level. These are not 18-year-olds whose mom and dad are paying for college. These are adults who are trying to figure out adulting with many additional challenges. For me, watching the fortitude and perseverance of these students is awe-inspiring.”

Photo: (Left to right) ENet student Brian Sullivan, ENet Project Director Matthew Connell, ENet student Angel Felix, ENet student Shelby Henderson, ENet Adjunct Mary Crean, and ENet student Belmarie Lugo (front). On screen (top to bottom) ENet students Robin Jackson, Tarrance Lawerance, and Davis Armstrong.