The resources and support available to University at Buffalo students and alums developing their own business ideas were on full display at the Student Union Sept. 14. The inaugural Entrepreneurs Festival hosted by UB’s Blackstone LaunchPad chapter brought demonstrations and networking opportunities with UB alums to the school’s North Campus. Lloyd’s Taco Factory co-founder Pete Cimino participated in a Q&A segment with students, and the festival concluded with a business pitch competition that sent two teams to New York City to present their startup business plans in a national competition.
“We want to celebrate innovation and creativity on campus, but we also want to encourage our students to pursue their passions,” UB Blackstone LaunchPad program director Hadar Borden said. “And we want to help them understand how they can take their ideas and their research and turn it into a startup.”
Over the din of the Student Union lunchtime crowd, more than a dozen business owners, many of them UB alums, presented their startups and spoke about entrepreneurship with students. Amber Small, co-founder of jam Parkside café in Buffalo, gave the opening remarks, and businesses ranging from tech startups to beauty product boutiques were represented.
The event was sponsored by Colligan Law, LLP and Allstate Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs.
Also represented at the event was the 43North business plan competition and resource organization and Z80 labs business incubator. Companies represented include Zandra Beauty, founded by 17-year old Azariah Cunningham when she was just 9, and Statdash, a tech startup founded by Mark Nusbaum and Pam Nelligan.
“Honestly, I think it takes the mystique out of it. I remember when I was a student here at this very same college, going to events like this. Being involved in business seemed to be very daunting to me,” Small said. “When you see all these different entrepreneurs, all these different startups and you see how varied they are, how unique the people involved are, and then when you also see all the different areas that are available for support, I think it really boosts your ability to get involved yourself.”
Blackstone LaunchPad is a national, grant-funded organization represented on universities across the country that provides resources like workshops, venture coaching, and pitch competitions to students and alumni developing business plans. One of those competitions is PitchWars, which was held at the end of the UB Entrepreneurs Festival between six student teams.
Each team made five minute pitches in front of a panel of five judges. The winners were Bernard Cohen and Joseph Ricciardi, students who presented their Chip-Down backyard golf game, and Abid Alam and Elijah Tyson, co-founders of Coldspace food storage for university students on campus. The two winning teams will travel to New York City to compete in the Tech Stars national competition.
Pete Cimino, co-founder of the popular Lloyd’s Taco Factory and food trucks, participated in a Q&A session, interviewed by UB student Matthew Rivera. Cimino spoke about the risk he took in developing his business model, the challenges he faced initially to bring one of the first food trucks to the city, and what inspires him as an entrepreneur. He also commented on how he got involved in the popular CNBC television show “Restaurant Startup,” and the difficult decision he made to turn down the winnings, which would have forced him to give up some control of the company.
But UB business owners represented at the festival, from tech company founders to recreational business owners, had one consistent message: Anyone thinking of following their dream to start a business can’t be afraid to take a risk.
“There’s always that fear to fail. I guess you don’t really overcome it. You carry on in spite of it. There’s always that worry there,” Small, a UB alum said. “We’re seeing a lot more people involved in the small business community, involved in startups, and a lot of that is because of the support that has been coming up in this ecosystem. There are so many different resources available. And that wasn’t available before,” she added.
And if you are willing to take that first step in pursuing a business idea, there is a network of resources locally to guide you through the process, especially for University at Buffalo students.
“We know this is a difficult journey for a 22-year-old or a 55-year-old,” Borden said. “Having that mentorship, the guidance is really important.”