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The Real Apprentices

April 2, 2006
By REGINE LABOSSIERE And DAN HAAR, Courant Staff Writers

The risk takers, those who bounce back after failing, people determined to rise in a cutthroat environment, creative thinkers and natural leaders - those are the folks Donald Trump and NBC are seeking when they hop around the country casting their show "The Apprentice."

As it happens, Hartford itself is also looking for the same ambitious types, as developers erect hundreds of apartments.

Long after Saturday's first local casting call for "The Apprentice" is forgotten, the city - and the region - will try to nurture these types of residents as it strives to build badly needed vibrancy along with all those sleek new dwellings.

They are in their 20s and 30s - the talented underdogs, the strategic leaders, the entrepreneurs and the team builders. There are many of them around, though never enough. They are united by ambition, smarts and assertiveness, if not the garish aggression featured on the show.

Dozens of interviews with young professionals who fit "The Apprentice" mold, including some who are answering the casting call and many who aren't, reveal a strong consensus that the Hartford area has come a long way, but still has far to go. Unanimously, they see themselves as part of the journey.

Here are profiles of four who are typical, perhaps outstanding, examples of the region's culture of driven, rising professionals.

The Talented Underdog

Tracy Bell, a 24-year-old information architect for Aetna in Middletown, said he'd like to be involved with anything Donald Trump is into.

"A lot of the business world is connections. If you can be associated with him, there's no limit to where you can go," said Bell, who is better known to friends and co-workers as Tre.

Limits are not exactly in Bell's frame of mind. He's breaking molds as he grows into the man he promised his grandmother he would be.

Bell is from Meridian, Miss. He and his two older brothers were raised by their mother. He saw a pattern among the dozens of people he knew growing up: Some would go to college and some would not, but almost all would stay in their hometown working low-paying or low-level jobs. Bell promised his grandmother he'd do better.

"She was the only one who went to college," Bell said of his grandmother. "She watched her children, as smart as they were, never live up to their full potential."

His drive and ambition were reinforced time and again. He enrolled in Mississippi Valley State University, became a Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brother, played guard on his college basketball team and was selected as one of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund's top students in the nation among the historically black colleges and universities.

Bell made good on his promise to his grandmother when he graduated in 2003. After three summer internships, Aetna offered him a position in its prestigious Leadership Development Program and Bell left his native South for a job up North.

But, unlike most of the newbies who stay for the duration of the three-year program, Bell felt ready to tackle a position in Aetna's information architecture department.

"I want this, what I'm doing now, to be a steppingstone, to move up within Aetna," Bell said. "I just want to be successful. You have to do what you have to do."

In his spare time, Bell is a youth minister at his Bloomfield church, plays in several basketball leagues, is getting his master's in business administration and plans to start a limited liability company for real estate ventures with a friend he met through church. He's already talking of getting a doctorate degree.

"Right now I feel like I'm still starting," said Bell, who is married with a 2-year-old son.

"I have a great job, I'm in a great place. At the same time, I feel there is so much farther I can go," Bell said. "I'm not at the point where I want to be. I plan on having the Benzes, the BMW, the Range Rover."

Bell said he doesn't plan to leave the Hartford area any time soon, with all the insurance companies and other prominent businesses in the state.

"It's a place with many opportunities as long as you're ambitious and willing to get it," he said.

Bell went to "The Apprentice" casting call Saturday because of the opportunities Trump could bring him.

Before the interview for the television show, Bell said, "I'm going to just be myself, let them see a young, motivated go-getter. Let them see the things that I've overcome, leaving rural Mississippi, being in corporate America."

The Strategic Leader

What Claire Burns sees from the angled windows of her 12th-floor office at Lincoln Financial Group is a sweeping view of downtown Hartford, from the Phoenix "Boat Building" to the Cathedral of St. Joseph, with the state Capitol and Bushnell Park dominating the middle.

Burns likes what she sees.

Downtown has recently been coming together not just with buildings, but, as she put it, "people doing interesting things in Hartford."

In her job at Lincoln, Burns - a Wesleyan University graduate who holds an MBA from Yale - brings projects and people together in a large corporate structure. Lately, she has been integrating pieces of Lincoln's business from Hartford, Philadelphia, Omaha, Neb., and Fort Wayne, Ind., to help form a new division for employer-based retirement plans.

It is part of the merger of Lincoln and Jefferson-Pilot Corp., which happens Monday. Among tasks in the business world, merging large companies ranks as perhaps the most difficult because of the potential for clashing corporate cultures and the inevitable job losses.

Burns calls on a wide range of diplomatic, tactical and big-picture strategy skills, "helping bring folks together around a business process and solve problems."

Burns, who lives in Middletown with her husband and two elementary school children, graduated from the Leadership Greater Hartford program in 2000, and now is the group's chairwoman. She is also vice chairwoman of Our Piece of the Pie, a not-for-profit youth services agency.

Burns, who has been at Lincoln for eight years and worked at Aetna before that, describes herself as driven, and clearly is that. But she hardly shows the cartoonishly brash style often exhibited on "The Apprentice." The Donald, in fact, is among the annoyances that incite aggression in her because of his style and tone.

"Every time I see Trump I want to punch him in the nose," Burns said.

In her more understated style, Burns is eager to climb the ladder. To get to the top, she said, she'll need to work with customers and head broad business lines.

"They ask me pretty often what I want to do next," she said.

The Entrepreneur

During the first high school summer when he had to find a job, Brian Zelman set up shop detailing cars. At $40 per vehicle, plenty of work came in from the parents of his friends at Kingswood-Oxford school in West Hartford.

"That's when I really realized that long-term, I didn't want to work for anyone but myself," Zelman said.

And for the most part, he hasn't - or, at least, he has worked in jobs where his pay is set by how much he gets done. At 29, the West Hartford resident sees himself as an entrepreneur and gravitates to business owners socially.

Already, he has jumped into ventures in several fields, from selling cars to helping a telecom services firm get started. Most of his forays have gone well, though none has earned him a fortune, just yet.

Zelman, who is engaged to be married May 28, works as a real estate salesman at ERA Broder Real Estate in West Hartford. In that post, he's self-employed, sharing office costs.

"I'm doing a bit more commercial stuff than your average residential real estate broker," Zelman said.

Among his inspirations as a would-be property mogul: "I read a lot of Trump books when I was younger, so I've always admired Trump."

But Zelman added, "I'm not one to be the center of attention or try to get the spotlight. If I were involved in a real estate company, the last thing I would want on the building is my name."

In a decade on the entrepreneurial scene, his name has turned up in a lot of places, if not on the tops of buildings. Zelman enrolled and quickly dropped out of the University of Connecticut, worked briefly at CIGNA, and soon afterward opened a marketing distribution business for a line of air filters, water treatments and other environmental products.

"I made a lot of money, I lived a great lifestyle, I spent a lot of money," Zelman said. "I traveled, I pampered myself, I was young."

What, at 29, he's not young anymore? Sure he is, but he wishes he had discovered real estate sooner, now that he feels a sense of urgency about it. "I can only imagine where I'd be now," Zelman said.

After the distribution stint, Zelman sold high-end cars for New Country Motor Cars, where he made a lot of powerful contacts among buyers. He developed a network for a bartering company, on a commission. At a telecom startup, he said, "I'm good with numbers so I helped this woman plan for the growth of her company."

There were other ventures before Zelman received his real estate license last June.

Describing his zigzag young career over the telephone, Zelman sounds like a slick operator. In person, with his lawyer fiancee, Johanna Gordon, he appears more studious, even soft-spoken.

As for "The Apprentice," Zelman is bummed about missing the chance to try out - he's out of town at his bachelor party.

The Team Builder

At 28, Ivon Rodriguez is general manager of the Hartford/New Haven and Springfield Telemundo television stations. She is involved in all the operations, from meeting with advertisers and customers to being the liaison between her staff and the corporate offices. But what she really enjoys is building her team and educating the community.

"It's not a well-rounded day unless I'm volunteering or helping somebody," said Rodriguez, who serves on the boards of the YWCA of Greater Hartford and the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts and is affiliated with the New Haven-based group ARTE Inc., which promotes Hispanic art and culture.

Rodriguez, a Miami native, began working for Telemundo when she graduated from Brown University. She helped form affiliate stations in Boston in 2000 and in Providence in 2003. She moved to Hartford in the same year and held several positions until becoming general manager.

"It's been a really fast run for me," she said, describing her ascent in the Telemundo world in the three cities. "But I'm the type of person that's like `Give it to me, what's next?'"

Rodriguez recognizes that "The Apprentice" personalities aren't de rigueur in the business world, but a certain enthusiasm certainly will get you ahead, she said.

"We really do hire more on attitude than skill. It's more of a team as opposed to a workforce. You want to work with people who are positive," Rodriguez said.

The first in her Cuban family to go to college, she believes in Telemundo's commitment to the Latino community.

"We're entertaining you, but at the same time we're educating you," Rodriguez said, listing immigration, literacy and finance as some of the issues the station makes the public aware of. And, she said, her team is launching a literacy campaign in September.

Success, Rodriguez said, is "waking up in the morning and really being excited to go to work and being excited to do what you have to do. I think I'm on a roll."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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