Community impact and a meaningful legacy: that’s the heart of the Western New York Prosperity Fellowship. When Bryant H. Prentice III lived in Buffalo as the chairman of Bryant and Stratton College, he and his wife, Joan, were impressed by the earliest days of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the promise it had to shape the region’s future. They saw a correlation between their students and Buffalo’s redevelopment: While students on Bryant and Stratton’s three local campuses were local and were educated to enter the workforce in administrative, technology, and health-care careers (creating the valuable technical and middle skills sectors), other collegians were poised to be innovators and entrepreneurs. These young professionals needed greater incentive to launch their enterprises and build their lives and careers here. This influx of fresh opportunity would help drive the economy and create jobs across all levels.
The Prentices and The Prentice Family Foundation took action. The family foundation first launched a scholarship program in 2009 for students at the University at Buffalo; Canisius College students were included starting in 2010.
“They wanted to do something else to encourage students to stay in Western New York and create meaningful and sustainable jobs here,” said James J. Tanous, executive director.
Awarding scholarships is always welcomed and appreciated, but foundation officials observed something very valuable. “The students didn’t know each other,” said Tanous. Innovation can’t happen in a vacuum, and synergies can’t fuel more growth without roots. The scholarship program was redefined in 2014 to be a fellowship where students would meet, share, and start building the bonds that lead to collaboration and potential partnerships. Canisius and UB officials provided the infrastructure and programming to support these valuable opportunities for their fellowship students. This was what Tanous and the foundation needed to launch their vision: “This joined a Catholic college and one of the largest research universities arm-in-arm to build relationships between their fellow Fellows,” said Tanous.
The fellowship is unique in both design and scope, and there is another required element: Each Fellow has to spend two of the next 10 years in the region engaged in some sort of business.
As the program director of UB’s participation, Hadar Borden recruits rising junior through doctoral students to apply for the fellowship. Student applications are reviewed and vetted by a committee of faculty, staff, alumni, and community leaders. The selected 25 Fellows, she said, are “the cream of the crop.”
“The blueprint for the program is the Regional Economic Development Council strategy for business development,” said Borden, and the fellowship programming adds an essential leadership development component.
A retreat and other programming (like the casual “Innovate Over Ice” social and workshops led by business leaders) help the annual cohort “bond as a community,” she said, where the Fellows “see Western New York through the lens of entrepreneurism. The program encourages them to use their gifts and their passion and to connect to Western New York.”
Borden likens the fellowship to Leadership Buffalo, where students are exposed to a wide swath of what Western New York has to offer, from civic engagement to businesses and the arts. More than a “boost Buffalo” pep squad, Fellows are also exposed to the region’s challenges, too. This is just as valuable: A Fellow might see the potential for a fresh approach to an old challenge, or spot the need for a whole new business. This spark could spur the kind of innovative thinking that leads to the creation of something new, edgy, ground-breaking. When their fellowship ends, “they now have a community,” Borden said, and potential collaborators and business partners.
Business development is another sweet spot for the Prentice family. Tanous said he encourages Fellows to bring their business ventures back to the Foundation for consideration. “Part of our mission is to invest in companies, too,” he said.
This is the kind of initiative that really resonates with students. Phil Schneider was selected to be a Fellow in 2013. While he was grateful for the financial support afforded by the scholarship, the opportunity to connect with other business leaders was invaluable. “The fellowship meant that my network would grow tremendously with other like-minded, highly motivated professionals,” he said.
This paid off for Schneider: He worked with a Fortune 500 technology company on the West Coast, and while he could have remained with the company, he chose to stay in Buffalo, where he felt his Fellowship participation served to establish his professional reputation. He connected with a fellow Fellow, Joe Peacock, and “he introduced me to this ‘unicorn’ of a startup company called ACV Auctions.” ACV Auction is a million-dollar 43North winner, and the company grew exponentially as a result. For Schneider, that meant that “six days later I had a job there as a research engineer helping to drive some of the innovative technologies they are creating.” Right place, right time, right team.
Celine Keefe, marketing director for Launch NY, has been a Fellow since 2015, and credits a guest speaker for inspiring her career pivot. She says, “Marnie LaVigne, Launch NY’s president and CEO, came to talk to the Fellows during our winter session in 2015. That is where I first learned about Launch NY, and I knew then that I wanted the opportunity to work for that team. Without the fellowship, I wouldn’t know this work was possible. We all have a responsibility to make it stronger, to raise each person up and encourage them to follow their dreams.”