How young entrepreneurs are breaking into Buffalo's startup community

Shelden Gibbs realized early on that he had a sharp eye for fashion. It didn’t take him long to discover he had a solid business sense, as well.

The 10-year-old Tapestry Charter School student, with his own fresh personal style, wanted to start a company designing and selling bow ties. Purples, polka-dots and paisleys, Shelden had that part down. But his mother, Rhonda, said he had to develop a business plan first. That meant learning to set prices, keep track of inventory, and assess his market while his friends were shooting hoops and playing video games.

A year later, Shelden’s company, Classic Knot, has a full website with about 100 different styles of bow and neck ties, each bright and vibrant. His business has caught the eye of several local media outlets in Western New York and, most weekends, Shelden is busy meeting with wedding planners and store buyers.

Shelden is quick to credit the work ethic instilled in him by his mother when he’s asked about his success. “It takes a lot of sacrifice,” he said recently on a late evening after a long day of meetings with a wedding planner and a potential new vendor for his line of ties. “I’ve always had a lot of helpers. I’ve needed their support.”

He’s not the only one balancing school while managing a brand that’s earning attention. Across Buffalo, a new generation of young entrepreneurs is starting to set its own path as the region’s business climate evolves. From grade-school students learning the basics of budgeting to a thriving entrepreneurial environment at the University at Buffalo, business leaders say the resources available to young entrepreneurs are steadily growing.

Start small

It’s already been a long day for about five students, mostly from the East Side Monday evening in South Buffalo as they sell bottled water and Snickers bars to local cyclists participating in the weekly Slow Roll Buffalo event. They’re part of a program called Kiddie Kick Stand, founded by African Heritage Co-op President Alexander Wright, to give low-income youth an opportunity to learn entrepreneurship and business principles while making a little money, too.

Wright is passionate about the city’s renaissance, particularly in the city’s East Side, but in order for that momentum to continue, he said, the community’s youth need to have a solid foundation so they can become successful leaders later.

That’s why, on the first chilly evening of the fall, kids ranging from grades 3-9 were in South Buffalo after a long day at school, making change for passing cyclists who might be hungry or need an extra bottle of water. Over the course of the summer, Wright said, his students’ maturity has grown by leaps and bounds.

Kiddie Kick Stand started in May, and about five of the original 15 are still with the program, which allows them to keep half the money they earn up front, and then take home the rest at the end of the program.

“You have to be on time, work hard, and be friendly,” Wright said. “We really want to create the next entrepreneur, to have them do real work and have an understanding of what it takes. But we really have great kids.”

The program is still in its early stages, and Wright is intentionally keeping it small, for now. He is hoping to apply for nonprofit 501(c) status in the near future.

Across town, another program is giving kids in grades 3-6 an opportunity to sell their products at the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market during the summer.

Through the New York Small Business Development Center, Andrea Lizak directs Kid Biz, a program that runs through the summer, starting in May, and gives approximately 30-65 young Western New Yorkers an opportunity to sell their creations at the farmers market in the Elmwood Village.

Those products range from jewelry to baked goods. Lizak said the most popular item this summer was a hand-held goo toy called, appropriately, slime. Participants go through a short training program, and they learn the importance of paying their families back for any money they borrow from “the Bank of Mom and Dad,” Lizak explains.

“From the first day to the last, and even year to year, you can see how much they grow,” Lizak said. “They talk more, they interact more … it’s a labor of love.”

The program ends after sixth grade, but Lizak said beyond that, NYSBDC has worked with many youths in grades 7 and upward. And they offer the same advice and support as they would for any adult with a business idea and a dream.

“They all mature, and they’re all happy to make a little money,” Lizak added about the program.

Early success

Shelden is a graduate of Wright’s Kiddie Kick Stand program, and for all of his successes, he’s still learning about the challenges of being a business owner.

“Social media can be really frustrating,” said the young entrepreneur, who has already had to face negative comments about his success as his company has earned attention through television appearances.

But even after a long day, Shelden speaks confidently about his ties, thanking his mother and family for teaching him solid business skills, and giving credit to God for his success.

“I’ve learned the sky is the limit,” Shelden said. “Running a business is hard work and it takes a lot of time, but I know it will be worth it.”

Zandra Cunningham, 17, is another young, successful entrepreneur. She started her beauty product company, Zandra Beauty, when she was just 9, mixing and matching lip glosses from a store-bought kit. Now, she’s developing her own line of products and negotiating with national and local chain stores to carry her cosmetics.

That success reached a new peak last month, when Cunningham was named the winner of The Pitch competition sponsored by 43North at the Buffalo Museum of Science, earning her $15,000 toward her company, which she says she’ll use to add labor during the holiday rush.

Now Zandra is considering where she’ll attend college next fall. But she has to squeeze college visits in between trips across the northeast as she expands her business into well-known chain stores.

Bright future

Bernard Cohen and Joseph Ricciardi seemed to have every class together at the University at Buffalo when they were underclassmen. Naturally, they became good friends and fraternity brothers. And now, they’re even in the same MBA program at UB.

Makes sense that they would become business partners, too. Ricciardi and Cohen, both 22, are the owners of Chip-Down, a backyard golf game they developed and put into production.

Their Chip-Down product was developed in an entrepreneurship class at UB, but it started to gain momentum now that both are enrolled in the mechanical engineering MBA program. Both Ricciardi and Cohen credit the support they’ve received from UB’s business school faculty and the resources available on campus, like Blackstone Launchpad.

But before college, Ricciardi said he was quiet, mostly focused on video games, or helping his father around the house. Their involvement in their Greek chapter, helping to essentially build it from the ground up, jumpstarted their passion for business, as the pair took on administrative roles within their fraternity chapter to make it the fastest growing Greek on campus.

Cohen, meanwhile, grew up racing go-karts. He said there is plenty to consider, both in engineering and in business management, when it came to competitive go-kart racing, especially as he moved into more competitive circuits.

“When I came to college, it really opened up a new mind set,” Ricciardi said. “I did stuff I didn’t think I’d ever do professionally. I was always a little bit of an introvert.”

Ricciardi provides the technical expertise at Chip-Down, while Cohen typically is strongest at marketing and organizing. Cohen said that’s what makes them so successful.

“My first business professor believed in me and he believed in Chip-Down,” Cohen said. “I’m eternally grateful to them.”

Like many young people, the challenge right now for Cohen and Ricciardi is finding capital and balancing a quickly growing business while going to grad school and holding down part-time jobs. For many young people, especially as their business grows, that becomes the greatest challenge: balancing the success of the business with the need for stability in income.

“It’s exciting to see where we came from one year ago,” Cohen said. “We’re very proud of where we are today.”

For local youth, there will always be barriers to success that adults with better developed resources and business plans don’t have to face. Western New York's entrepreneurship support programs for young people are still fairly nascent, and school or reliable income typically are the priority.

In addition, Wright said that for communities of color, nepotism and racism are universal challenges in building a thriving business climate.

But young people have one advantage others might not when starting their first business: unbridled enthusiasm.

“I’ve always been out the box,” Shelden Gibbs said about his personal style. “And I know the sky is the limit.”


Read more articles by Joel Lehman.

After spending 15 years in northern Vermont where he worked as managing editor for a daily publication, Western New York native Joel Lehman returned to Buffalo this summer to be part of the city’s renaissance. He lives with his girlfriend and his goldendoodle, Wilson, and he enjoys running, skiing and cooking for his family.
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