Participants can collect unemployment benefits for a maximum of 26 weeks while they go through the SEAP program. That's not a huge amount of time to plow through the logistics and bureaucracy associated with opening a small business, say past participants. Still, it does give people a little bit of a financial cushion. "It gives you resources, money, and the push you need to do it," says Mina Marsow, another SEAP graduate and owner of Prospect Gymnastics in Brooklyn. "When you're unemployed, it is so hard to get out of bed in the morning because you just have all of this time."
Too much time on one's hands is not the typical experience of an unemployed person enrolled in SEAP. Bliss, for instance, spent her days scrambling to complete the checklist needed to open her letterpress-printing business. She took seven small business classes at a local community college, including marketing and accounting. She worked with a business counselor to draw up a business plan, applied for a sales tax ID number, and found studio space in her husband's uncle's house for her massive printing presses.
She paid for the startup costs and classes out of her savings, while still collecting a weekly unemployment check and not having to look for another job. (Typically, unemployed individuals are not allowed to both work and draw benefits). "The SEAP program doesn't hold your hand. They give you a checklist of things you need to do to stay in the program," she says. "But it gave me the structure to know where to go."
Twenty-nine-year-old Marsow had a similar experience as a SEAP enrollee. The Brooklyn native lost her human resources management job in October 2013; as young professional, she assumed that she would easily find work before her six weeks of severance ran out. When she still had not landed a job and found herself collecting unemployment benefits, she learned about SEAP.
As Marsow started to research small business opportunities in her Brooklyn neighborhood, she realized that Flatbush did not have any gymnastics gyms. She had become involved with the sport as a child, and even taught at Manhattan's Chelsea Piers while she was in college. Suddenly, she had the germ of a business plan to hoist herself out of unemployment. On March 3, 2014, Marsow opened Prospect Gymnastics to teach tumbling and gymnastics to children and young teenagers. "I definitely learned from this experience that I want to be an entrepreneur and not work for anybody," she says. "I don't see myself going back to being an employee."
So far, roughly 9,500 New Yorkers have gone through SEAP. A recent paper out of the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project called attention to its merits. Evidence from a similar program in Massachusetts showed that allowing people to collect unemployment benefits while opening up a small business "can help the unemployed transition into productive unemployment, and can do so cost-effectively," the paper says.