August 4, 2008

Immigrant’s Success Spurs Him to Help Others Start in Business

By Melissa Repko

After living his own American Dream, businessman Laszalo Meszaros decided the best way to spend retirement was to give back.

Meszaros, who sold his company Voice Technologies Group of Amherst to Intel Corp. in 2000, started the Meszaros International Center of Entrepreneurship (MICE) in his birthplace, Hungary, and then decided to bring it to Buffalo. In October, the second year of organization's entrepreneurship training program will kick off at the University at Buffalo.

"It's very rewarding to see the change in young people's lives that I contributed to," he said. "It's a self-satisfaction that I get out of it."

MICE, a non-profit organization in partnership with the UB School of Management, runs a 19-week program for high school juniors and seniors from mostly underprivileged backgrounds.

But at its core, the program is deeply inspired by Meszaros' own story.

Meszaros arrived in New York City on Oct. 23, 1956, the same day the Hungarian Revolution broke out. His trip across the Atlantic was sponsored by Catholic Charities, and was put on a train to Buffalo. He had no family or friends in the United States, spoke no English and carried just $1 in his pocket.

In Buffalo, Meszaros made shingles in a factory, swept floors, worked in restaurants and eventually landed a job at Roswell Park cleaning animals in the research labs. Two years later, he was assistant director of the experimental surgery department, despite his lack of training.

When he was unable to get money for medical school, a doctor at Roswell encouraged him to help computerize the facility. Meszaros quickly mastered computer skills and left Roswell to work for Computer Task Group. Eventually, he began two companies that he later sold.

In 2003, he founded the Entrepreneurship Training Program in Hungary. It aimed to shatter the old Communist mentality, where running an independent business was illegal and creativity was stifled. It also sought to teach young students ethical business practices in response to rampant corruption, Meszaros said.

With the program's success abroad, he looked to bring it to the United States. "I felt I wanted to give something back to the Buffalo area, where I made my future," Meszaros said.

UB Professor Joseph Salamone, director of education content and program development, teaches the 19 three-hour sessions. They are held on Saturday mornings at 9 a.m. and consist of course content, a guest speaker and an interactive activity each week. It culminates with a presentation of business proposals and a graduation ceremony.

Last year, there were 49 graduates. This year, they hope to have 80 students, Meszaros said.

The program relies on the support of local businesses and foundations, he said.

Right now, of the $250,000 needed for the program, they only have $80,000. And while they ask participants for $150, 75 percent were on scholarships last year, Meszaros said.

"Our goal is not to make every person a businessman," he said. "We make better citizens out of them. We make more aggressive people out of them. We expose them to how to make a dream and reach the dream."

For applicants, drive rather than grades is the primarily criteria "because the entrepreneurial spirit is something totally different than someone writing poetry," said course coordinator Eugene Hegedus.

"We want these kids to be the pioneers in the renaissance of Buffalo," he said.

West Richter, who recently graduated from City Honors High School, will take the lessons from the program to UB's School of Management and School of Music next fall.

"It's a great way to spend your Saturdays," he said. "A lot of people take them for granted and sit around, but you're learning a lot of things that will set you up for the future."

Richter spends some of his time repairing computers and hopes to someday run a technology or music-related business.

Another participant was Bethany Halbreich of City Honors High School who will head to New York University in the fall. Halbreich's interest in business began when she made and sold sushi to her first grade classmates. Now, she runs Bethany by Design and hopes to expand the company in years to come.

"The MICE program really taught me how to take what I knew already and emphasized finding my own way of doing things," she said.

A major focus of the program is to instill teamwork, self- confidence and ethics in the students, Meszaros said.

"We need honest, ethical people to run this country," he said. "Every day in your business' life, you want to look in the mirror and see the same person who started the business."

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Originally published by NEWS BUSINESS REPORTER.

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