Small businesses thrive in Buffalo’s entrepreneurial ecosystemNumerous organizations are committed to helping small startups with business plans, technological assistance, and funding

Becoming a small-business owner can be daunting. Creating business plans, securing financing, navigating regulations, and managing operations demand complex knowledge and skill sets.

Fortunately, nonprofit organizations offer tailored technical assistance, as well as loans for entrepreneurs who might be passed over by traditional banking institutions. These organizations share a belief that the success of small businesses will benefit communities, and an eye for aspiring entrepreneurs who are passionate and highly motivated.

Westminster Economic Development Initiative is located on Grant Street in Buffalo, in the heart of the West Side community that it is rooted in, though it has expanded to serve the whole city. Executive Director Benjamin Bissel believes that providing resources to help local residents become entrepreneurs will vitally benefit the larger community. “Grassroots startups are key to Buffalo’s ecosystem and the long-term health of Western New York, because they’re created by members of the community, and they’re the foundation of businesses that are going to be staying here,” he says. By investing in them, WEDI ensures that their success will strengthen community ties.

Yanush Sanmugaraja, WEDI’s Economic Development Director, says WEDI was drawn to work with vegetarian burger producer Go Veggies because of its unique product and energy. “The owner of the business, Genga [Ponnampalam], had also done a lot of research and testing of his products prior. His research and testing spoke to us about him being capable of owning his own business and taking the necessary initiatives needed to move his business forward,” he says. After working with WEDI, Go Veggies formulated a plan to sell through retail locations and seasonal markets rather than establish a brick-and-mortar presence. WEDI was able to help Ponnampalam with pricing, inventory, and expansion into new outlets, including Wegmans and the Lexington Co-op.

Annie Krause of The Rogue Cellar, an innovative vegan bakery, also caught WEDI’s attention for her personal investment and discipline: She had already spent years working on her startup, creating an online presence and local network. “She had built a reputation for her product…and had been procuring business partnerships well before coming to us for assistance. These were two things we noticed immediately, and we found both of these to be quite telling of her ability to own her own business,” Sanmugaraja says. Among other things, WEDI was able to assist her with forming a business plan and deciding on her next moves.

Sanmugaraja notes that both Ponnampalam and Krause come from disadvantaged backgrounds. “Traditional financial institutions would typically look over entrepreneurs like Genga and Annie because of their previous lack of credit,” he points out, whereas WEDI was able to provide them with specific technical assistance. “WEDI found that serving both of these business owners filled a need.”

PathStone, a community development corporation active since the late sixties, established its Enterprise Center in 1997 with the goal of increasing economic self-sufficiency and quality of life for individuals and communities through business training, technical assistance, and financing. With offices in Buffalo, Rochester, and Ponce, Puerto Rico, the PathStone Enterprise Center covers a broad geographic range, but its focus is very much on the local.

“Small businesses are important because every small business has the potential to scale up and become part of our larger economy,” says Jonathan Ling, Business Development Officer for the Buffalo office, located on the East Side. “The best way to get involved in the growth happening in Buffalo is to start a small business, and hopefully it grows as the economy grows. Otherwise, if you’re not doing that, if there’s no space for a small business to exist, there’s exclusivity, a non-inclusive economy. We all know studies say mixed income economies perform best.”

Thinking Elvish Fantasy Chocolate is just such a small business with the potential for a long-term place in the community. “Thinking Elvish said, ‘We want to build a business that’s a family business’—it’s a husband and wife, and hopefully the kids will be working there, too, when they grow up,” Ling says. “It’s local and keeping money here instead of shipping it off to a big corporation somewhere.”

As Ling points out, every big business has to start small. Healthcare Hub, a locally owned business that PathStone partnered with, supplies biodegradable medical products online. In Ling’s opinion, it has the potential to go global.

PathStone continues to work with businesses after they’ve secured loans. “We work one-on-one before loans and after loans, giving borrowers—the applicants—technical assistance with their business planning. So within their organization, if they have a problem with their business, whether marketing or cash flow, we can help them with that, and if we can’t, we help connect them with the resources they need,” Ling says.

As Sherri Falck of Excelsior Growth Fund, which operates throughout New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, puts it, “From native Buffalonians starting a neighborhood business to serve an unmet need, to newcomers who are looking to scale their business—every new business has the potential of making a positive impact on our local economy.”

That feels especially true in the case of 19 IDEAS, a marketing and communications company that partnered with Excelsior. 19 IDEAS has worked to infuse local businesses like Tipico Coffee and Larkin Square with the marketing expertise of founder Katie Krawczyk and her team.

On an even more granular level, Excelsior Growth Fund worked with Mary Goodwill, founder of Mary’s Little Lambs, to furnish a small business loan for a childcare center boasting several classrooms and a full kitchen. Because Mary’s Little Lambs offers extended evening hours, the company provides working parents with greater freedom and expanded scheduling opportunities.

Increasing the range of economic opportunity is one of Excelsior Growth Fund’s core goals, and it often approves loans to small business owners who are unable to borrow through banks. “Every business is unique, as is every situation in which a bank might decline a loan to a business,” says Falck, citing credit score, risk, and lack of time in business as reasons why clients might be turned down elsewhere. “Unlike a bank or traditional lending institution, we do not have a hard line on credit score. If the business has break-even or positive cash flow and can demonstrate a history of paying business obligations (including debts and taxes), that entrepreneur is a good candidate for an Excelsior Growth Fund loan.”

In addition to small business loans, Excelsior Growth Fund offers one-on-one advice, access to a resource library, and events such as seminars, at which local entrepreneurs can meet and network—in other words, a chance for them to deepen their connections with the communities that they hope to help thrive.

Read more articles by Jen Wellington.

Jen Wellington is a native of New Orleans and a recent transplant to Buffalo. She holds a master's degree in fine arts from Columbia University. In her free time, she enjoys foraging wild mushrooms, picking banjo, and playing with her dog, Gumbo.
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