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Area Students Runa Business with Help from MIT

By Anna Fortunato
Staff Photographer

Fifteen MIT students are teaching Cambridge area students the valuable skills necessary to run a business. The Cambridge students, all of whom are non-native speakers of English, run Multico, or Multicultural Company. Multico's sales of pens and T-shirts give these students both a source of income and experience in the business world.

Multico is made up of six high school, nine middle school, and 14 elementary school students, along with a group of adult coordinators. In addition, local teachers and businessmen run the grant-based program, while the MIT students act as paid advisors, according to Curtis A. Gabrielson '93, an MIT student coordinator who works for Multico through an internship in the political science department.

The students have full control over the day-to-day operation of the business. Directives from the student-held positions of sales manager, inventory manager, and personnel manager determine which products are sold, where and when they are sold, and what sales techniques should be used, Gabrielson said. The MIT students stand by only to advise -- the ultimate decisions remain with the company personnel.

Multico arose from a grant set up last year by Alan Dyson of the Cambridge Partnership at MIT, a group designed to create programs run by MIT and the local Cambridge community for non-native English speaking students, Gabrielson explained.

The grant donators, who chose to remain anonymous, put very few restrictions on the grant, except that any program it funds should involve many different age groups and cultural backgrounds, and include both a business focus and MIT students.

Cultural diversity emphasized

The company targets the large and varied cultural groups in Cambridge. They sell T-shirts with maps of various countries printed on the back and pens and pencils with messages in Spanish, English, and Creole. Students sell their wares during school activities, after school in their neighborhoods, and wherever else they can, Gabrielson said.

Although Multico is a multi-lingual company, the students move between Creole, Spanish, Portuguese, and English to make sure that everyone in the company understands what is being communicated.

"We don't all speak English well, but we work together," said Erica Autuori, Multico sales manager and a student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. "We get to be close friends and to respect each other, but there is no favoritism among us. Everyone wants to see the company running. Everyone agrees to make the decisions."

Participants praise program

Gabrielson said, "The idea is that the students run the business. We [MIT coordinators] are here to give them the knowledge, skills, information, and materials necessary for them to do it themselves... . to relate the finer points of entrepreneurship to a class full of students from six grade levels, four language and culture backgrounds, many of whom have been in the U.S. for less than two years, is difficult for even the experienced teachers."

Ramon Bucheli, Multico coordinator and a teacher at Rindge and Latin, said the goals of Multico are "to capitalize on the ideas of students, to allow the students to have first hand experience ... with production and market research, with selling, and to establish communication between grammar school and high school students."

Bucheli added that he was asked to be involved with Multico because he is bilingual and has experience working with "students at risk." Elsie Vega, another teacher at Rindge and Latin, explained that the term "at risk" covers students with problems ranging from economic trouble to emotional difficulties.

"Many of the high school students are living on their own. They work after school until midnight, with no adults to supervise or motivate them," Vega said. She added that Multico "gives them a job and trains them. They leave with skills to get a better job than what they are doing now -- washing floors or dishes. It gives them some self-esteem."

"Once you join the group, you learn group work -- to work with everybody. I learned from them and they learned from me, too. We were not just there to get money, but to work with the people. We learned how to take care of ourselves in a job, and how to handle money," Autuori said.

Further MIT help will be needed as the program changes and expands, Gabrielson said. "MIT students [who are] interested should know that the job involves a lot of organization, coordination, self-motivation, and considerable patience." An interest in teaching is helpful, as is knowledge of French, Spanish, or Portuguese.

"This is far from a passive job in which you show up and work for a few hours," Gabrielson said, "but I personally learned an immense amount from this project, far beyond what I hoped to, and most of the time it was a real kick."