Artists, taste makers, and inspiration leaders

Zelalem Gemmeda is a fan of hard work. While living in a refugee camp in Yemen for a year prior to resettling in Buffalo in 2006, she found a way to make a profit from selling her Ethiopian spices and bread to the camp’s population.

Twelve years later, now operating inside of the West Side Bazaar with her own business, Abyssinia Ethiopian Cuisine, she’s still churning a powerful profit as one of only three restaurants in the city that offer traditional Ethiopian cuisine.

Gemmeda is one of the 27 recipients of Ignite Buffalo’s first small business grant competition, a partnership that includes 43North, Facebook, and M&T Bank and awarded a combined $1 million in grant money and 12 months of business mentorship to its winners. Of the 27 grant recipients, 22 happen to be women, an outcome that is not shocking to Colleen Heidinger, vice president of programming and community strategy at 43North.

“The females presented very well, they were very organized, they were very clear in what the money was going to go toward,” Heidinger said. “They were excited. Not to say that men weren’t, but I think those are some reasons why women seemed to gravitate toward the top.”

The spirit of collectivity

No one builds a small business alone. That is the Ignite Buffalo slogan that greets small business participants as they land on the program’s website homepage. No one embodies this idea better than Gemmeda, who was one of the first tenants in the Bazaar after it relocated in 2012.

Bob Doyle, manager of operations at the West Side Bazaar, said he works closely with Gemmeda and has a high degree of confidence in her skills as a businesswoman.

“I think she’s definitely one of the most long-term focused of the entrepreneurs in the Bazaar,” Doyle said. “She’s also one of the most determined people I’ve ever worked with. If you tell her something’s not going to happen, half the time she’ll make it happen just to spite you,” Doyle said with a laugh.

She’ll make it happen even if it doesn’t directly benefit her, he added. Of the 15 businesses operating inside the Bazaar, 14 of the owners are women, and Gemmeda is a leader among them.

During the Bazaar’s initial development stages, Gemmeda spent countless hours dropping off food and marketing the space to bring as many people as she could through its doors at a time when people were just becoming acquainted with Ethiopian cuisine in Buffalo.

If not for her business specifically, her hard work would at least pay off for a fellow business owner, she thought.

“I love the idea of being together in one business space,” Gemmeda said.

This all-for-one attitude is one of Gemmeda's many characteristics that have helped her succeed.

“She still lives that mentality, that nobody in the Bazaar is going to be successful unless they are all kind of successful in a way, so she’s a leader in that aspect too,” Doyle said.

Patrons might notice a reoccurring pattern when they stop by the Bazaar for their Injera, an Ethiopian sourdough flatbread: Gemmeda is always behind the counter cooking for her own customers, and she rarely likes to leave.

Not a minute is wasted on Gemmeda’s watch, and neither is a dollar. Gemmeda plans to either open her own food truck or a spice shop with her Ignite grant money. Which plan will come first remains to be seen, but Gemmeda is leaning more toward a spice shop.

“A lot of my customers want to try to make their own food at home, so I want to make the spices available to them,” she said.

A continuous learning curve

As more women begin rising up the ranks at startups and in the corporate world nationally and locally, Heidinger said there is always room for more growth, and in Buffalo, she believes the right women leaders are here, and the time is now. They just need to be identified.

Once these women leaders are identified, companies will find that they aren’t afraid to admit what they know and what they don’t know. This is the object of growth, which is why identifying weaknesses is equally as important as admitting strengths in business, according to Heidinger.

During Ignite Buffalo’s grant competition, Heidinger noticed that the women business owners were more open to sharing their weaknesses with the judges during the Q&A portion, which made them appear less stiff than other competitors.

“It can make them seem more like a normal, well-rounded person versus a know-it-all,” Heidinger said.

For Aitina Fareed-Cooke, creative director and founder of Get Fokus’d Productions and recipient of the Ignite Buffalo grant competition’s People’s Choice award, photography saved her from a life of depression and a decision to attempt suicide. She now uses her passion to teach inner-city youth with similar stories about how this artistry and trade can impact Buffalo businesses.

“It was difficult at first. I wasn’t business savvy. I just tried to connect with other business owners and other mentors to get some guidance,” Fareed-Cooke said.

While she was in the process of starting a business, Fareed-Cooke began reading many books and sought out the help of the SUNY Buffalo State Small Business Development Center through a program called Entrepreneurship in the Arts, a five-evening program that provides attendees with specialized training.

“It was a great resource for me to just kind of help me focus on what it was that I wanted to provide as a company,” she said.

A balance of pride, humility, and self-sufficiency

Ayanna Williams was already an established businesswoman prior to the founding of Buffalo All-Star Extreme (BASE) Cheer and Dance. Her previous business, Candy Kids Spa, LLC, took off and did well.

Wanting to make the leap into the world of competitive cheer and majorette dancing after being introduced to the sports by her daughter, Williams began pouring her own money, resources, and business acumen into her new endeavor.

But 12 weeks into forming the BASE program, a family tragedy struck: Williams’ niece was murdered. This shifted her motivation entirely.

“BASE went from being this huge money maker to becoming an organization to inspire youth, to teach them competition, encourage them to finish school, and live great lives,” she said.

She could not have executed her vision without the services of one important resource: the Crucial Community Center on Moselle Street.

“I really didn’t have a lot of help with starting BASE, I think that’s why I was blessed to have the community center, because it allowed me to grow before I branched out on my own and became a full-fledged business,” Williams admitted.

“Blessed” is a hackneyed saying for some, but not Williams, who speaks using the word “blessed” gently when referencing the steps she took toward turning BASE into her reality. BASE now operates in its own building, and is home to two guest instructors from the popular Lifetime reality cheer and majorette show "Bring It."

Williams plans to use the Ignite grant money to finish renovations to the building, an old post office on Main and Northhampton streets which serves as the gym for team cheer practices.

“I felt honored when I made the top 27. It wasn’t until the top seven did I realize that Buffalo All-Star Extreme has become what I had dreamed it to become. I never in a million years thought we would be able to do this,” Williams said.

The outlook on women: hand-in-hand in leadership and enterprise

Leadership and running your own enterprise goes hand-in-hand, says Susan McCartney, director of the SUNY Buffalo State Small Business Development Center.

“Most studies on leadership argue that great leaders are driven, possess higher levels of energy than average, are charismatic, work well with people, and can work toward the long view. Many women I know and the female business owners I have worked with have nearly all, if not all, those traits,” she said.

It’s not just in higher education where McCartney is seeing the trend. It’s happening in rural and urban agriculture, demolition and concrete construction, auto body repair, and other fields traditionally reserved for men.

In terms of support for women, Williams is enthusiastic about the future of Buffalo’s growing business renaissance as it appears more people than ever are now shopping small business and keeping their dollars in their communities.

“I think it’s phenomenal. I personally think there are a lot of resources, a lot of opportunity, and a lot of support (in Buffalo). Ignite not only helps out the 27 winners, but they also allow other entrepreneurs to attend all of our small business meetings and so forth for free,” Williams said.

In the center’s training programs, McCartney sees a higher percentage of female enrollment, and while women continue to dominate higher education, McCartney believes you will see the same happen in entrepreneurship over the next 20 years, as she sees more women taking on larger funding than in past years.

“It is a very exciting time for women entrepreneurs. My advisors and I are truly honored to play a part in advancing their success,” McCartney said.

Funding the dream

Abyssinia Ethiopian Cuisine, born out of the necessity to survive the Yemen refugee camp without friends or family members, is now the dream Gemmeda puts great care into realizing. Her larger vision is to own a stand-alone Ethiopian restaurant in Buffalo one day. Is it possible?

While the West Side Bazaar has been an ideal launching pad for her business, Gemmeda may need to look elsewhere if she wants to expand. The Bazaar is supported by the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, which makes microloans of up to $20,000 available to its Bazaar tenants. This is not enough to own and operate a restaurant, according to Gemmeda, who occasionally seeks the advice of her restaurateur friends.

“Opening a restaurant is going to cost a lot of money. People tell me it can cost upwards of $150,000 to start,” she said hesitantly.

“My impression is that Zelalem wants (the restaurant) to be more of an experience. I’m thinking this would involve a combination of her saving up profits from the food truck and the (current) business,” Doyle said.

It might also involve learning more about the resources and funding available in Buffalo's entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“The regulation folks seem fair and get people approvals fairly quickly. We have a large number of traditional lenders and a fairly good supply of alternative lenders,” McCartney noted.

Risk takers and motivators

In addition to supportive professionals like lawyers and accountants, Western New York has a well-educated workforce, said McCartney. This is demonstrated by Gemmeda, who made getting an education her top priority once resettling in Buffalo.

“When I was in Yemen I had a restaurant, and when I came here, I wanted to get my education because I love education, so I went to school (at Erie County Community College), I got my associate’s degree, and after that always I wanted to be in business and be my own boss,” Gemmeda said.

Gemmeda has instilled the importance of education in her son and daughter, who are currently working on their bachelor’s and master’s degrees at out-of-state colleges.

This is one of the most important motivators that brings Gemmeda to work each day.

“The purpose of working hard is not to make profit, but make their education affordable. School is expensive, so I have to work hard to pay for his schooling,” Gemmeda said when speaking about her son.

Williams doesn’t regret for a second franchising her former business to start a new one.

“I’m glad I did because now we have our own building, we’re the first all-star cheer and dance majorette company (in Buffalo), and we’re just doing really good,” she said.

Fareed-Cooke is just as thankful for her award. To think that it almost didn’t happen is unimaginable to her now.

“When I was putting together my application, I almost stopped. I almost didn’t go through with it. There was a lot going on (in my life) at the moment, and I wasn’t expecting to get this far,” she said earnestly when speaking about the extensive online application process.

But she did. Along with the other 21 women Ignite Buffalo grant recipients, who are community-oriented, focused on the long term, proud yet humble, and energetic. Factor in sacrificial and fearless, and the recipe for a successful woman business leader in Buffalo is formed.

Read more articles by Jessica Brant.

Jessica Brant is a published poet, sports photojournalist and human interest writer from Buffalo, NY.
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