Entrepreneurship: Jase, Jahmir and KiAyko Join the Rank of Caruso Challenge Alumni

Three Hopeworks young professionals—Jase Elam, Jahmir Mungo, and KiAyko Walls—successfully completed the second Caruso Challenge program at Hopeworks, sponsored by the Uncommon Individual Foundation. The 15-week program, designed by Ben Pietrzyk while he was enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate Program, offers young people the opportunity to learn how successful entrepreneurs systematically solve problems. It also requires them to design and launch live micro-businesses within their own community. At the completion of the program, they earn three college credits.

Ben now offers the program through the Uncommon Individual Foundation, a Devon, PA nonprofit founded by Richard Caruso. (Pietryzk named the challenge after Dr. Caruso, because he was impressed with his commitment to young people.)

Paola Alamo, Jahani Boateng, Da’Shek Boone, Michael Cassel, and Michael McClain, completed the Caruso Challenge last November. They had such a great experience that the two nonprofits decided to team up and offer the program to a second cohort.

 In this round, which finished in May, Jase and Jahmir collaborated on one team, and KiAyko collaborated with a high school student named Shruti. Jase and Jamir focused their attention on the lack of comprehensive care for consumers of mental health services. KiAyko and his teammate explored ways to boost financial literacy among preteens, teens, and young adults.

Ben, and his colleagues Molly Furlong and Sean Hackman provided close mentorship throughout. They lead Jahmir, Jase and KiAyko through an interactive process that showed them how to shift their lens from lived experience to something of broader use for a larger population, how to gather “clean” information from interviews, and how to carefully analyze a problem and land on a practical, business-worthy solution.

Jase and Jahmir, for instance, began by looking at their own experience with the mental health system, and their sense that mental health inpatient treatment is, as Elam says, “not good comprehensive care for people who are in crisis.” They zeroed in further, and decided to explore with others what experiences they might have had with mental health treatment. Ultimately, they created a PDF -based product with a dual purpose. One was to help mental health consumers “track their own inpatient treatment so that they could better understand what happened, why they went into the hospital, what care they received, and what happened afterward,” and how long after they returned—if,  in fact, they did—for inpatient treatment, says Elam. 

Their other goal? To share data from users who permitted it, with stakeholders in the mental health arena so they could provide evidence of how quickly many mental health consumers are re-admitted for inpatient treatment. Enough data of this sort could provide the evidence needed for stakeholders to consider improving the quality of care.

“There is no good record keeping in terms of readmission rates to hospitals,” says Jase. “That framework doesn’t exist currently in the Philadelphia area. When you look up inpatient data, you can see how many individual hospitalizations there were. But you won’t get data on how many people went back to the hospital in 30 to 90 days. No one is tracking that data.”

Jase has plans to post the PDF on their own website for an ongoing venture, Nebulous Healing, as soon as they update the website. 

Walls said he and his teammate ultimately created a financial literacy course for youth that could be taught online and sold to parents who want their children to learn how to have a healthy relationship with money. 

All three considered the 15-week program time well-spent. 

Jase said that one of their biggest takeaways from the program was learning the value of slowing down, and “finely analyzing what that key part [of a problem] is that needs fixing . . .” rather than just identifying a problem and immediately trying to fix it. ‘It’s better to really take time to dive deeper into what the problem is,” they said.

Jahmir especially appreciated learning how to do informational interviews “using questions that aren’t leading or making the person believe what I want to believe, so I can get an honest answer out of them.” KiAyko also cited learning how to properly interview others as a highlight for him. He said he enjoyed “the chance to brainstorm with strangers and find out how differently people think, compared to me.”

Each said they would recommend the Caruso Challenge program to others. “The whole experience, for me, was really amazing,” says Jahmir. “It was great to learn more about entrepreneurship and what goes into it.”

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