In a classic tale of rags-to-riches, Erik Clemons inspired his audience last Thursday at the Yale School of Management, as he told the story of his journey from starting out as an an ill-prepared high school student to becoming the CEO and President of the community-focused non-profit institution, ConnCAT.
The event, titled “Bright Lights, Green Sights,” was part of the “Unconventional Entrepreneurs” series sponsored by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment. In his talk, Clemons shared the story of the founding of ConnCAT, a nonprofit that offers career training programs designed to give unemployed adults the skills needed to secure meaningful jobs in the medical field and culinary professions, and the academic support required for success in these programs. The organization also targets youth with its after-school and artistic programs.
“I readily share my story, because there are people out there who need something to reach for. Role models have a huge impact. I am willing to be vulnerable and tell my story to those who want to hear it, because stories like mine can have huge impact on those who need hope,” Clemons said.
For the majority of his talk, Clemons focused on his fight to rise out of the poverty in which he had grown up. His childhood memories revolved around his living in a small room with numerous other people. At fourteen, his father had disappeared without a trace. He graduated high school as a young man who was “ill-prepared to go to college.”
In 1998, Clemons began to work at the post office. After his twelfth year at the post office, Clemons began to wonder about his contributions to society and to his community. In September 2003, he enrolled in school while still working. In May 2004, he graduated with a degree in sociology.
“During this time, I fostered a dream of teaching young black boys who were facing the same conditions that I was able to overcome,” Clemons said.
Clemons began to intern at the organization LEAP, an organization which provides academic and social enrichment programs to both children and young adults. He soon quit his job at the post office. Eventually, Clemons became the Connecticut Executive Director of LEAP.
In June 2011, Clemons was asked to help in the process of founding and building ConnCAT from the ground up. “I was expected to work with construction, architecture, et cetera. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was willing to learn,” said Clemons. Almost five years later, ConnCAT is now a prospering and well-respected nonprofit that has had profound impact on New Haven’s community and youth.
“My life story connects so tightly with what I now do as work,” Clemons said. “People with whom I work are like me. I am proud to say that everyone who works at ConnCAT are people who were once unemployed.” Clemons elaborated to say that 95% of his staff were most recently unemployed.
In a question-and-answer period after his talk, Clemons said that the formation of real relationships with funders is the core of ConnCAT’s fundraising tactics.
“Relationships drive everything,” he said. “Funders fund people, not only programs. We create relationships with funders, so that funders not only commit, but also recommit in the future.”
Audience members interviewed said that they were inspired and moved to see an entrepreneur focusing on issues within the nearby community of New Haven.
Mikola Alexandre FES ‘17 SOM ‘18, who was one of the organizers of the event, said that he was excited to have a local entrepreneur and a proponent of community-building give a talk in the speaker series.
Alexander Co FES ‘17 said, “Clemons’ personal story seeps through his entrepreneurial work, which I found incredibly inspiring. His work fills such an important space.”
In a personal interview after the lecture, Clemons advised young entrepreneurs never to be afraid to fail.
“Don’t be afraid to name your own incompetences when you are starting out. Always ask for help, and work doubly hard to learn these new skills that you eventually will acquire,” Clemons said.
The ConnCAT center opened in spring 2012 and is located at 4 Science Park.