Helping ‘Creatives’ Think Entrepreneurially

By Diane Mastrull
The Philadelphia Inquirer.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Terrific article about one man’s quest to infuse entrepreneurial know-how into Philadelphia’s creative community. Neil Kleinman and the Corzo Center for the Creative Economy at University of the Arts has provided $110,000 in grants to 25 entrepreneurs, including $10,000 to 2005 Uarts graduate Michele McKeone’s Autism Expressed. Autism Expressed uses technology to teach and empower students with disabilities. Supporting women in business, women in the arts…two thumbs up from the WWR community!!!


Physically, the Corzo Center for the Creative Economy at University of the Arts is little more than a tiny lounge, seeming far too small to contain the force in perpetual motion that is Neil Kleinman.

Not that it matters. Kleinman’s mission as the center’s director encompasses the whole city, and he seems to be exploring every pocket of Philadelphia for partners willing to support it.

One day, he’s at the Free Library; another, at Drexel University or the People’s Emergency Center in West Philadelphia, or the offices of accountants and patent lawyers whose volunteer help he solicits.

His goal is to infuse entrepreneurial know-how into the city’s creative community, where aptitude for designing, molding, painting and inventing doesn’t automatically mean proficiency in business plans and bottom lines.

There is a pragmatic reason for Kleinman’s focus: that arts-degree graduates be able to support themselves. He also has an ultra-ambitious one.

“I feel if we can get the creating community to engage in the world, they will become true redefiners of the political and civic space we’re in,” said the 77-year-old resident of the Art Museum area, whose doctoral dissertation was on the Renaissance period.

“I feel we are again in that transformative moment, and central to that change shall be the artists,” Kleinman said.

Lofty aspirations from the head of a center that, despite its high-profile address — the UArts campus on the Avenue of the Arts — is largely unknown and financially reliant on handouts.

“You really have to believe in this or you’ll give up,” said Kleinman, who compared his situation to that of Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo, who used eating utensils to help dig his way to freedom from a prison cell.

Entrepreneurship has been getting lots of attention at this region’s higher-education institutions since the recession’s wake-up call, that, for many college graduates, the path to employment might have to be jobs of their own making.

Such a focus at a university dedicated to the arts is more unique, though needed, Kleinman said.

“Creatives went into [their work] thinking all they needed to do was spend time in their studio or stage, and the world would come provide for them,” he said.

Created in 2005 by Miguel-Angel Corzo, then president of UArts, the Corzo Center was more form than substance until 2007, when longtime trustee, philanthropist and Campbell Soup heiress Dorrance H. Hamilton provided a $5 million endowment.

Yet the center was mothballed until the 2009-10 academic year, when then-UArts president Sean Buffington revived it, setting as its mission support of the entrepreneurial potential of UArts students and alumni. Appointed managing senior fellow was Kleinman, who was teaching communication and industrial design and who has a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate in English from the University of Connecticut.

Now a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship, Kleinman took over as the center’s director in 2011, opening its offerings of workshops, grants and mentoring to the general public, often at no cost.

Since 2012, the Corzo Center has provided $110,000 in grants to 25 entrepreneurs, including $6,000 to 2012 UArts alum Lorenzo Buffa, whose Analog Watch Co. in East Passyunk now has three product lines and 70-plus wholesale accounts, including the Barnes Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.

The center “really helped me start a fire and build my business acumen,” Buffa said. Kleinman’s “eccentric personality” invites interaction without artists feeling “like they’re asking stupid questions.”

With an annual operating budget of $250,000, drawn from the interest on the Hamilton endowment, plus an additional $100,000 Knight Challenge Grant that expires this year, sponsorships and partnerships are essential to sustaining and growing the center’s offerings, Kleinman said. He is helped by a part-time manager, serial entrepreneur Todd Hestand.

“The Corzo Center only exists because of the generosity of the professionals in the community,” Kleinman said, citing the “office hours” program offering pro bono consultations with business experts.

Besides the Knight Foundation, the center’s primary funders are StartUp PHL and the Philadelphia Office of Art, Culture and the Creative Economy.

Partners for specific programs vary each year. In January, the Free Library of Philadelphia co-hosted with Corzo a two-week Introduction to Entrepreneurship workshop at the Central Branch. On the final night, five of the 18 participants were awarded $500 microgrants.

Grants of as much as $10,000 have been issued in other Corzo programs to more mature businesses, such as Michele McKeone’s Autism Expressed, which uses technology to teach and empower students with disabilities. McKeone, 33, of Fishtown, is a 2005 UArts graduate.

The Corzo grant she received in 2011 led to her inclusion in a GoodCompany Ventures summer incubator program and the eventual launch of her business in 2013. The following year, the company had its first three customers, including the Philadelphia School District.

McKeone, who taught autistic support at South Philadelphia High School for seven years, is working to raise a small round of capital to expand the business and possibly hire her first employees. With input from the center, she is adding a brand name, Digitability, to market her company’s applicability beyond autistic students.

“Every time I meet with Neil, just about every time, I think I thank him,” McKeone said. “The Corzo Center is absolutely vital. I don’t think I would have gotten this far without them.”

That message seemed to have reached David Yager even before he took over as UArts president Jan. 15. In an interview a week before his start, Yager did not make it sound as if Kleinman’s work at Corzo is threatened.

“He might have to worry about working harder,” Yager joked. “I would like to see a larger funding model, [with Corzo] getting involved in more things in the city and within other educational institutions.”

The always generously caffeinated, revved-up Kleinman — he walks six to seven miles a day, his Fitbit says — is already thinking ahead, to a day when Corzo could have enough sponsors and partners to have a funding pool of perhaps $300,000 to work with and be able to issue individual grants of up to $50,000 to promising entrepreneurial artists.

For inspiration, Kleinman suggested that potential funding partners see the movie The Martian, in which an astronaut left for dead on Mars survives by finding new uses for the space junk left with him.

It’s the kind of survival acumen the Corzo Center aims to instill in creatives, Kleinman said.

“So when the world around them changes,” he said, “they can build a new world with their skills.”

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