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Neighborhood Watch

When taking care of the community means taking care of business.

New York City entrepreneur Dorothy Pitman Hughes was on a mission. After years of supporting local economic empowerment efforts, in late 1997, the owner of Harlem Office Supply Inc. decided to take her involvement to a whole new level.

Her goal? To educate black youths on the power of investing. But her teaching method was virtually unheard of in her Harlem community. Hughes began selling shares of her company stock for $1 per share. "We were shocked at the response," she says. Hughes sold 85,000 shares in the offering's first week, fueled by an advertising drive in local media and churches.

The SEC 504(d) over-the-counter offering has enabled Hughes to expand her business, but she says her real reward is in giving Harlem's future entrepreneurs a taste of business ownership through their stock purchases. Parents drop their kids off for the Saturday morning investment classes Hughes holds for students aged 6 to 15. If they can save up $125 for sneakers, she counsels, they can also save for their futures by investing. "[The] children are really beginning to understand it," says Hughes.'

And the trend is catching on at all age levels: With nearly $400,000 in total shares sold and more than 5,000 shareholders, community members are even registering their babies for shares and giving shares instead of traditional gifts at baby showers.

Hughes' goal is to take Harlem Office Supply public on January 1, 2000. "It's become more like a crusade," she says of her unique win-win approach. And she's spreading the word: "It's a prototype [for entrepreneurs] that can [benefit youths] nationwide."

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This article was originally published in the February 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Neighborhood Watch.

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