Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.
New Zealand native Rebecca Brady was raising three young children while living abroad with her husband for work. For years, the family bounced around to locations in Japan and Singapore. And during that time, it was often a challenge finding foods that the family would enjoy and snacks that were healthy and fulfilling for the kids. But Brady had a passion for nutrition and her kids really enjoyed the seed-based snacks that she would prepare for them.
The family arrived in Clarence Center, N.Y., in 2015 for another employment-based relocation for her husband. After the kids got settled into their schools, Brady contemplated going back to work. She had experience working in marketing for Hewitt Packard, but found the 10-year gap in her employment history while she raised her children stymied work opportunities for her.
“You hear about it a lot, but it happens to mothers,” Brady said. “I thought I’m smart and kind and I put myself out there, but I couldn’t get the kind of job I wanted.”
So Brady started thinking about turning her snacks into a business opportunity and working for herself instead of a corporation. She learned that kitchen space at Quaker Bonnet Eatery on Buffalo’s West Side was available to rent and began renting the ovens by the hour in January 2017 to cook her roasted seed mixes and crackers. She sold the snacks under the name Top Seedz--a sports reference to being best for both energy and nutrition--at local farmers markets. By March, she was renting the space by the month to produce the quantities she needed.
“I didn’t realize how good a decision that was at the time,” Brady said. "You get scared spending money and think 'What if no one wants to buy my crackers?'”
Finding help to grow
As demand continued to grow for her snacks, Brady also learned about a program at the UB Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership called the Allstate Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs Program.
The program’s mission is to construct a pathway that enables minority and women entrepreneurs to move their companies to the next stage of development. It does this by helping startup owners learn about different aspects of running a small business, assisting them with marketing and business plans, establishing achievable goals and setting timetables for those goals, and connecting with other organizations and resources that can help their business thrive.
Alex Pelc, senior program coordinator of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, said Brady was a natural fit when she applied to participate in the fall of 2017.
“Rebecca, I would say, is a super-motivated entrepreneur,” Pelc said. “When she came to apply for the program, she was early in the process of growing her business. And when she got to us, that helped her ramp things up even quicker.”
As Brady made more connections, she was able to hire part-time help in the kitchen at Quaker Bonnet and get her Top Seedz products onto the shelves of some of the bigger retailers in the area. Today, you can purchase Top Seedz at Buffalo-area Wegmans, Whole Foods, Lexington Co-op, and other locations.
“I think it’s great she’s made such great connections in the community,” Pelc added. “Getting into Wegmans and Whole Foods is really impressive.”
Another aspect of the Allstate MWEE Program was pairing Brady with a mentor--someone who went through the growing pains of building a business of their own. Wendy Wilson, owner of Leonard Oakes Estate Winery and LynOaken Farms in Medina, N.Y., gave Brady valuable insight and advice. She was impressed by Brady from the onset of their mentorship.
“The thing that struck me the most about Rebecca was her energy and desire to make this business a success,” Wilson said. “She’s an incredibly driven woman with a fantastic product.”
Discovering new resources and support
As Brady was finishing her program at UB, she began exploring funding options to expand her business. One of those options was Ignite Buffalo--a grant and mentorship program that promotes sustainable growth, job creation, and ongoing education to local small business owners.
She decided to apply for an Ignite Buffalo grant.
“It was a pretty intense application process and took a lot of work, but luckily I had just finished the course at the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and worked on a business plan there,” Brady said.
Brady’s application made it into the finalists round of 27, which meant that she would be guaranteed a grant of at least $25,000. As the selection process whittled down, she again was selected as a top-seven finalist--and a guaranteed $50,000 grant.
While she didn’t receive one of three top finalist prizes of $100,000, she was grateful for the grant she did win and the experience of working with the people from Ignite Buffalo.
“Not just winning the money has been great, but also twice a week we’re meeting and doing classes and networking with the other winners and great people,” Brady said. “Talking with more people about doing great things and what works and what doesn’t--that is invaluable. I feel so lucky to be in Buffalo at this time when there is this whole new movement of people to appreciate.”
Making plans for expansion
Brady is now opening her own kitchen near the Buffalo airport, with larger ovens that will allow her to increase production. She estimates the new space will allow her to triple, and possibly even quadruple, her current output. And she has her eyes set on expanding Top Seedz sales footprint across the state.
“I am hoping to be able to increase distribution to Rochester in the next year,” she said. “I want to be maybe in Syracuse as well--maybe in another year.
“I want to be the next big Buffalo brand. People also love taking the crackers on vacation and sharing with family, so I would also like to open an online store so people can buy them and have them shipped.”
Her advice to people feeling tepid about exploring a small business opportunity of their own is to dive in headfirst and ask for help when you need it.
“Don’t hesitate--just do it and don’t be afraid to ask for help, because there are so many people with knowledge and (who are) willing to (help),” she added. “I am trying to pay it forward now with other business owners. Don’t wait.”