Feature: When Going Back to School Makes ‘Cents’

T. Cleo Austin says she realized at an early age that the best way to achieve her financial goals was to be her own boss, like her childhood idol Dominique Deveraux; a character on the 1980’s television show Dallas.

Austin was also inspired by Oprah Winfrey’s multi-tiered empire and decided to enhance her education so that she could create an empire of her own in the health and wellness space. “I often refer to myself as an Oprah-ite.” With her business plan, Austin has laid out a strategy that will generate multiple streams of income – private practice, writing, speaking engagements, and product sales.

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The 49-year-old’s move into the health and wellness space comes after years spent in the corporate and entertainment worlds. She held management positions at high-end hotels and luxury automobile companies, as well as freelanced as a wardrobe stylist, prop designer, and tour publicist for the BET Presents the Biggest Hip Hop Tour in 95, featuring headliners Jodeci and Mary J. Blige. In addition, Austin started a hip-hop club in South Florida, called Undaground Compound, which lasted for two years.

She says that she knew that each stop on her journey was temporary as she searched for her true passion. In 2009, while working at Allianz Global Investors, a colleague noticed Austin’s interest in metaphysical books and suggested she explore acupuncture. In June of 2010, Austin applied to the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (PCOM), in New York, and the following year began a four-year program which she will complete this December.  At PCOM, Austin will earn an associates degree in massage therapy, a bachelor of science, and masters of science in acupuncture.

“I wanted to do something that better reflected my philosophy in life and work in a field that I felt passionate about,” says Austin. She is currently a full-time student, carrying six classes a semester and one clinic shift. Austin says the total immersion that her studies require leaves no room for a paying job, despite tuition costs, which she says are between $27,000 and $36,000 a year, depending on the number of classes and clinic shifts she has.

“On top of that, there is the additional $27,000 per year in living expenses, books, and tutoring costs.” Upon graduation, she expects the total cost for this advance training will be $100,000.

Austin has been financing her education through student loans, and paying her living expenses with personal savings she accumulated during her career. “I was able to live 4 years without working and without assistance, except for student loans,” says Austin. “I am not paying on my loans while enrolled full-time in school. After graduation, my plans are to pay back loans from income received for working as an acupuncturist and massage therapist.”

Paying it Back, Paying it Forward

Upon graduation, Austin intends to work in a rehabilitation center part-time, three days a week, spending the other two work days building her own private practice. She expects to earn $3500 to $5000 monthly in her first year.

“The numbers are based on an in-class business plan project at PCOM. They’re based on crunching numbers of real-time data related to the industry of acupuncture and other complementary and alternative health services. Health insurance [from my clients] covers rehab work, so I’m guaranteed a small salary to supplement my income while building my private practice. My expectations are conservative for the first two to three years.”

Austin is confident in her initial predictions because of the leads she is already building at the clinic. “As a part of being an intern in the clinic, I am beginning to gain a following of regulars. I also assist in workshops and externship opportunities provided by my school, where I meet hundreds of new potential patients each year. I use all of the opportunities to build rapport and, possibly, have the people I treat as a student follow me after graduation and become my patients.”

Private practice, however, is only part of Austin’s plan. She also has a desire to offer her medical services abroad, specifically in Arusha, Tanzania. She participated in a volunteer trip through the non-profit group, and paid the $3500 it took to take the trip out of her own savings account. That trip made such an impact, that she has embedded a non-profit/for-profit endeavor in Tanzania, into her post-graduate business plan.

“Under the African Integrative Medicine umbrella I am creating a fundraising event called the EAST Africa Music Festival, that will act as one of the funds generating activities to support my initiatives with A.I.M, which include things like medical mobile clinics.”

Austin is partnering with school colleagues and friends in Tanzania. “I’m not at liberty to discuss the specifics yet, it’s a huge team effort, but a commission for my services has been worked out that I am comfortable with,” she says.

“With the aspirations that I have, I will expect to earn closer to $7500 to $10,000 a month in combined employment in the future.” Austin has it all mapped out “according to the strict business model that I have learned at school.” Leaving room for no excuses — age, debt, time commitment — Austin has made it a priority to take steps to maximize her income potential through education in her mid-forties.

The combination of Austin’s professional experience, current training, and entrepreneurship drive is how she can strategically make a plan to generate and sustain a business plan. She suggests:

Do the homework in self analysis.

Make an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes about being your own boss. Ask yourself if you have leadership qualities, and are confident enough to build a practice from scratch. You may decide it’s best to be a part of a group practice or work for an institution. Do your best to objectively answer these questions, as it is necessary to know where you are starting from before you can chart a career plan.

Plan for continuing education.

As in the case of the medical field, new advancements happen daily. To keep my future practice relevant I must make it a part of my business plan to regularly update my credentials. At the low end, I plan to spend $3000 per year on continued education; high end upwards to $15K when I have to do study abroad.

Fit your social objectives into our business and life plan.

As it is in my case, I have a deep desire to continue my contribution efforts in Tanzania. So I’ve made it a part of my business plan to develop various initiatives that will have a lasting impact in that community. When embarking on an entrepreneurial venture, it should be something that you are passionate about.

Written by Dayvee Sutton