The intersection of art and business


Innovative program bridges the gap

By Kathryn Coulibaly

Teresa De Sapio Diaz has always been an artist. The commercial arts/advertising design and 3D computer animation teacher grew up in Hunterdon County and was inspired to pursue a career in art outside of college. She opened her own business, TADS – Art & Illustration, which she continues to run even as she enters her 24th year of teaching at Hunterdon County Polytech Career and Technical High School, raising four children and teaching art the evening to adults.

As an artist and business owner, she knows the importance of teaching her students business skills. Thirteen years ago, she began a partnership with local Rotary clubs through the Bridging the Gap program. The program was born with a marketing professor, but eventually migrated to the art department, and Diaz has been running it ever since.

“We started this program as a way to help our students learn how to start their own businesses as artists,” Diaz said. “We give them the practical skills they need to take themselves seriously as artists and business owners, and introduce them to people who can make that dream a reality.”

The program is aimed at first and second year students of commercial arts and advertising design. During the first semester, Diaz introduces them to the different career opportunities they can pursue in art, such as mural painter, jewelry designer, graphic designer and many others.

In January, students decide which field they wish to pursue, but it must be a career they can pursue immediately with the skills they currently have to offer.

After making their selection, they are matched with local Rotary Club mentors from the Clinton Sunrise, Whitehouse, North Hunterdon and Flemington clubs. Mentors work with students one-on-one for two months to help them develop a 16-page marketing plan that includes things like their business name, slogan, services the business will offer, who the target market is , what the total would be the market, marketing strategies, prices, who would be their competitors, what would be their competitive advantage and samples of their work.

“Our mentors are all members of local Rotary clubs, and one of Rotary’s goals is to support education, especially job training,” said Len Yacullo, a member of one of the participating Rotary clubs and mentor of long-standing program. “Being able to help these talented students with our business knowledge has proven to be an exceptional partnership between our clubs and Hunterdon County Polytech.”

Together with the Rotarian, the student designs and builds a website and social media accounts, designs their own logo and business card, and develops their CV. The last week of March they are ready for a community job fair where they will interview for freelance jobs.

“Working with Rotarians is an invaluable experience for our students,” Diaz said. “As adults, we sometimes take all the things we know for granted. Even at that first mentoring meeting, we need to prepare students to dress professionally, to greet their mentor. I’ll ask students to show me outfit ideas on their phones to make sure it’s appropriate before that first meeting. We had entire lessons on what is proper business attire.

After the first mentoring meeting, Diaz works with the students to craft a professional email thanking the mentors for their time and mentioning a specific tip that helped them.

Mary K. Parente, owner of Honey Pot Art, interviews for freelance work with Michael Dimsey, owner of It’s Koffee Time.

Learn the craft of art

Thirteen years after the program began, the freelance job fair is well known in the community, but Rotary clubs and the Hunterdon County Polytech Career and Technical High School do an excellent job of promoting it to potential employers in the community. The job fair attracts a variety of companies interested in a variety of design needs, such as web design, illustration, graphic design, social media marketing, art therapy products , animal portraits, fashion, jewelry, T-shirts, menus, brochures, banners. and tattoo design.

“Every year, we never know who’s coming,” Diaz said. “Sometimes it’s the authors who need an illustrated book or the hospitals who need a logo for an event. About a week before the event, we have a list of employers so students can research them and prepare. »

The job fair is a lot like speed dating. Employers sit at a table and students sit across from them with their portfolios and discuss their work and the design needs of employers. Each student interviews for each job.

“Students are very, very nervous at first,” Diaz said. “After a while, they say it gets easier. And they get better with every interview. They leave employers with a copy of their resume, business card, and a sample sheet with their artwork. Employers rank their top three candidates, call them and offer them the job.

After the job fair, students can accept an offer, so they learn to accept and reject a business opportunity. They must also negotiate a price and draw up a legal contract, including terms and a down payment.

Their Rotary mentor and Diaz are on hand every step of the way. Diaz mainly helps with the artistic side of the equation, and the Rotarian helps with the business aspects.

“One of the biggest takeaways for students is time management,” Diaz said. “But they also learn how to communicate effectively with the client about the art, how to critique and get on the same page. They learn that ultimately they have to satisfy the client’s needs .

Diaz finds that when a student is having trouble, it’s actually a great learning experience for them. They eventually find it so rewarding for them to solve the problem and they learn perseverance.

“I love guiding them through this,” Diaz said.

Kevin Gilman, a Rotary member and Vice President of Hunterdon County Vocational BOE, sits with his mentees. From left to right: Maeve Eskind, Gilman, Katelyn Lucas and Katherine Mastropaolo.

Rotary Club mentors guide student-artists

At the end of the project schedule, which lasts about six weeks, they hold an awards ceremony attended by all students, mentors, and clients. Students present the projects and Rotarians determine which student did the best and award them a $500 scholarship.

Mentors derive great satisfaction from working with students and can be very competitive as to which student wins the scholarship.

“I love working with students,” said Megan Jones-Holt, longtime mentor and founding member of Rotary. “They have such bright eyes, but in an hour we make their heads spin just by asking basic questions and making them realize that it’s about making money. We really make them focus on the business side. I also like the competition between the students who present their projects. For me, it’s about my student mentee coming out on top, which I have to brag about and say that in the 27 years I’ve worked as a mentor, my student has won 90% of the time! »

Whether or not they win the scholarship, many students decide to keep their business going even after graduation. They find that it helps them pay for their college education, even if they continue in the field they love.

“One of my alumni is a jewelry design student in college who runs her business ‘Bridging the Gap’ in college and another alumnus is a graphic design student who runs an online store that designs jewelry. wallpapers for iPads and phones,” Diaz said.

The portfolio they produce as part of the program also helps them when applying to college, and the confidence and interview skills are an asset no matter what they decide to do.

Henry Cooper, owner of Coop’s Kustoms, puts up samples of his pinstripe work and sticker designs for potential employers to see.

Earn a living through art

Students are enthusiastic about the program and the skills it brings.

“What I enjoy most about Bridging the Gap is exploring new career path plans,” said Mary K. Parente, a Bridging the Gap participant. “It helped me think about what I would like to do in the future and what I can do about it now. In the process, I learned how to market not only my products and my business, but myself as an artist. The program has helped me prepare for my future by giving me real world experience and teaching me what I don’t want to do in the future in a space with no real consequences .

For student Henry Cooper, it gave him a practical argument for studying art, a subject he loved.

“I really enjoyed having the full creativity to build my own business the way I wanted. I learned how to contact and talk to customers. By doing Bridging the Gap and studying at Polytech, overall, I changed my mind about college and decided to study art, as well as science.Bridging the Gap allowed me to rekindle my love for art.

For Diaz, helping students find a way to keep art in their lives is an added bonus.

“It’s so amazing to have a career as an artist,” Diaz said. “I always look at life through the lens of an artist. Even after 23 years of teaching, I think that’s why I’m still so excited about teaching; I come to work happy every day because I’m still an artist and I come to school with that energy. The students know it and feel it.

Diaz’s students and colleagues certainly feel it; in August 2021, she was named Hunterdon County Teacher of the Year. She continues to bring energy and enthusiasm to her many roles inside and outside the school.

Many schools partner with local Rotary clubs and other community service organizations to benefit their students. To find out if there is a Rotary club in your area, go to


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