More students hope to hatch businesses through SMCC incubator

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SOUTH PORTLAND — As community colleges continue to experience double-digit enrollment growth, in part because of their affordability during a recession, a Southern Maine Community College program that helps students start their own businesses is also booming.

Enrollment in SMCC’s Entrepreneurial Center has quadrupled over the last year, from only two or three students last year to 12 students this year. Meanwhile, another eight students are awaiting interviews to get into the program.

Center Director Michelle Neujahr said the increased enrollment is being driven by non-traditional students, who have lost their jobs during the recession. Students are re-examining their skill sets, she said, and considering business ownership as a form of job security.

“Students are also finding that being an entrepreneur with the skills they learn at SMCC can be more financially lucrative than going to work for someone else,” Neujahar said. “They’re coming out in full force. We’ve just been blown away.”

The center operates as a business incubator, offering students free office space, professional advice and access to office equipment, including a computer and a dedicated phone line.

Neujahr said the entrepreneurial program partners students with area business people, who can offer real-world advice based on their own experiences. The college currently works with about 50 business owners, who volunteer as student mentors.

“That speaks volumes about the business community we have here in South Portland,” said Neujahr, a 40-year-old motivational speaker and business trainer who lives in Yarmouth.

Students interested in the program can range from current business owners looking to expand their existing business to those who have a general idea about business they would like to start.

Faculty members meet with students to assess their needs, develop a strong, viable business plan and set tangible goals.

“We focus on execution,” said Neujahr, who also owned a construction company for 10 years. “It’s not enough to just throw up a sign. You have to generate revenue.”

SMCC recently moved the Entrepreneurial Center from the corner of Broadway and Benjamin Pickett Street to a new home on campus in the Hague Hall, near the Business Department.

“The Business Department has really brought entrepreneurial courses to the forefront,” Neujahr said.  

SMCC will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new, two-room facility on Monday, Jan. 25.

This week, the Maine Community College System reported a nearly 16 percent increase in statewide enrollment, an increase of about 2,000 students, bringing the statewide spring enrollment up to nearly 15,000.

SMCC experienced a 15 percent increase, bringing enrollment at its South Portland and Brunswick campuses to more than 5,500 students.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or