If you're a woman or a member of the minority communities with a dream to take your business to the next level, you’ve got friends right around the corner. For nearly 15 years, entrepreneurs have built and grown their businesses with the help of mentors at the Allstate Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs Program, a joint venture by the University at Buffalo’s School of Management’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and the UB Center for Urban Studies.
The program started in 2004 to support women and minority entrepreneurs in the Western New York ecosystem as they move their businesses to the next stage of development. Since 2005, the Allstate Foundation has provided a grant to underwrite the cost of the program, making it more affordable for the entrepreneur, noted Alex Cleat Pelc, senior program coordinator.
To date, 297 entrepreneurs have graduated from the program.
Participants, called protégés, learn about different aspects of running a small business, devise realistic goals and timetables, and connect with existing resources and successful business owners to develop their companies. The program is geared primarily toward helping established businesses grow, rather than incubating new startups, according to Tom Ulbrich, assistant dean and executive director.
“The vast majority of the people going through our program are scaling up smaller businesses,” he explained. “We’re getting an occasional startup; however, many startups will just refer to the SBDC (Small Business Development Center) and other programs in the community. The idea is to grow them … and introduce them to mentors that will help get them to the next level.”
Protégés meet twice a month in class from September until May and also work outside the classroom through networking events and mentoring. They complete a revised or newly developed business plan, and three protégés are selected, based on their presentations, to win monetary prizes during the graduation ceremony at the end of the program.
The program limits classes to 30, with a mix of experienced business owners and a few fledgling entrepreneurs. Classmates build a mutual support system as they share common problems and find solutions.
One successful graduate of the program was only 14 and attending Tapestry Charter School when she participated, noted Cleat Pelc.
“Sandra Cunningham…went through the program a few years ago…She’s been on Good Morning America. She makes her own bath and body products, and you can find a lot of her stuff in local stores like Wegmans and Whole Foods. It’s called Zandra Beauty.”
Learn more about DeHonney’s business here.
This year’s Protégé of the Year was Allison DeHonney. DeHonney spent 20 years in the insurance field before starting her own company, Urban Fruits and Veggies, which serves local residents in the City of Buffalo who have no access to fresh produce.
The company helps customers eat healthier foods, feel better, and improve their overall health and wellness. Urban Fruits and Veggies operates a mobile produce market, offers a fruit and vegetable prescription program, and runs farmers markets on the East Side of Buffalo.
“Our prescription program is targeted to the underserved community with folks…who have health issues, such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular issues,” DeHonney explained. “So we work with clinics and physicians to bring that program into the community.”
DeHonney notes that her mentor “really understood my business and helped me focus on pricing my time, putting value on my time, and attaching monetary value to some of the services I provide.”
“I’m very happy I took the class,” she continued. “I’ve met some amazing people; my classmates have amazing businesses that I’m sure are going to be very successful. The class was really good at looking at what challenges you are facing and how (to) overcome some of those challenges. So I think it was a great experience.”