All part of the plan: Savvy Hires goes to Washington

Capital gains: A shot at the finals of the SBA's national InnovateHER competition (in Washington) and President Trump's apprenticeship push bode well for Felicia Fleitman and her Savvy Hires startup.

A big win in the regional round of the 2017 InnovateHER business plan competition has punched Savvy Hires’ virtual ticket to Washington – though mentally, founder Felicia Fleitman was already there.

Besting nine competitors in the Hofstra University-hosted regionals of the annual Small Business Association contest, Savvy Hires has been nominated to represent Long Island in early July’s semifinal round, which will whittle things down to 10 finalists expected to collide July 31 in the nation’s capital in a face-to-face biz plan pitch-off.

Just the semifinal nod is a big step in the right direction, according to Fleitman, who already had D.C. on her mind – specifically, a recent executive order signed by President Donald Trump that aims to spur nationwide apprenticeships.

Trump’s June 15 decree is focused on “expanding apprenticeships and reforming ineffective education and workforce-development programs.” The order establishes official definitions for “apprenticeships” (paid work with an “educational or instructional component”) and “job training programs” (developing skills while “increasing the earnings or employability of workers”) and requires the federal government “to provide more affordable pathways to secure, high-paying jobs … while easing the regulatory burden on such programs.”

Unofficially, the former host of “The Apprentice” game show has speculated about 5 million U.S. apprenticeships by 2022, an ambition some observers lament as unrealistic. According to Department of Labor Statistics, there are roughly 505,000 registered apprenticeships in the nation today, with another 43,000 added each year. Assuming at least some of those 505,000 trainees earn their wings each year, it could take a decade or longer to reach 5 million apprenticeships.

But just the fact that the White House is endorsing apprenticeship programs is sweet music to Savvy Hires, a Westbury-based recruiting firm that’s made the development of workforce-bolstering internship programs a core mission.

“Talk about proof-of-concept, and being in the right place at the right time,” said Fleitman, who launched Savvy Hires in 2016 after more than a decade of formulating training strategies and managing recruiting programs for New York City law firms and other high-profile employers.

“I built a business on the concept that letting an employee try out a job before getting hired, and letting a company really focus on training and onboarding, is the best way to hire,” she noted. “Now, separately, POTUS agrees with me.

“How helpful is that?”

That concept was front and center in Savvy Hires’ regional triumph in the InnovateHER competition, albeit with a particular focus on autistic adults and professional women. While it doesn’t concentrate exclusively on those populations, Fleitman’s firm has emphasized the training and eventual employment of autistic collegians and women in the workplace.

Donald Trump: Big fan of the apprentice.

Among Savvy Hires’ innovations: an “autism pipeline” designed to help autism-spectrum persons get through the nerve-wracking interview process and secure the right jobs for their often-impressive skills sets, formed with Enterprise Rent-a-Car, the Northwell Health system and Adelphi University’s Bridges to Adelphi program, which helps autistic students earn their college degrees.

Coming soon: an intern-to-employee program for women returning to the workforce after serving as caregivers for children or other family members. Still on the drawing board, the program will ultimately look to close the wage gap and reverse “the lack of women in C-level positions,” according to Fleitman, who notes cases of highly educated professional women taking a few years off – and falling hopelessly behind, in corporate terms.

In addition to helping companies create hyper-focused employment programs that tap into this underserved sector, Savvy Hires will recruit technology partners who “make sure these women are utilizing the latest technology skills,” Fleitman noted.

Such efforts won over the regional InnovateHER judges and pushed Fleitman’s startup a step closer to the national finals, where more than $70,000 in prizes will be at stake. In their joint nomination letter to the SBA’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership, Hofstra University Entrepreneur-in-Residence Barbara Roberts and fellow judges Gioia Bales and Patricia Ciavarello – the Zarb School of Business senior assistant dean and assistant dean for outreach, respectively – lauded the recruiting firm’s “proven model for helping women and autistic adults find training and jobs.”

“Savvy Hires is creating a future pipeline of workers through the education and advancement of marginalized populations,” the letter added.

Fleitman said the judges’ recognition has put her “over the moon.”

“There are days when doubt creeps up on you,” the entrepreneur told Innovate LI. “When you say to yourself, ‘Is it worth it?’ None of your target clients are calling you back, you’re moving money from your savings account into your business account … those are tough days.

“Then something like this happens, and it proves to you that you’re on the right path,” she added. “It gives you that third-party credibility.”

It also puts Savvy Hires a step closer to the chunky prize money – no minor thing, according to Fleitman, who says her new women-returning-to-the-workforce program will kick in “when we win the competition.”

She says it with a wink, but even a clever innovator with a number of impressive victories under her belt – the autism pipeline, for instance, has placed its first seven summer interns this season, including five at Northwell Health and two at Enterprise – can always use a five-figure capital infusion.

Especially when the White House tees up a national push that plays directly into her growth strategy.

“The money from winning that competition would allow us to get some larger employers on board, and then we can penetrate the market piece by piece,” Fleitman noted. “But I really want to win competitions like this because I have to be able to tell people I exist.

“Then, when they want to create apprenticeship programs, they know who to call to execute their program effectively.”