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Mary Hales knows the pain of corporate downsizing many Western New Yorkers are feeling as the economy cools and companies cut jobs.

She knows the shock, anger and frustration of being laid off by a large corporation. Hales was fired in 1996 after 14 years with General Motors.

She knows how scary it is to be an unemployed, 40-something, divorced, black woman with two kids to feed.

The University at Buffalo graduate ultimately decided to look at the fork in her road as an opportunity, instead of a curse. She opened a day care center in downtown Buffalo which now operates at capacity and has a waiting list.

"I had needs that had to be met and bills that had to be paid. I didn't have time to feel sorry for myself," said Hales. "But I knew opening a business was going to be hard, because I had limited financial resources."

Hales is an example of what UB, and many others, hope to see much more of soon. She is a successful African-American business owner.

UB's Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership will host a free seminar on African-American entrepreneurship in Buffalo from 8:30 a.m. until noon Wednesday.

The next decade may be opportune for minority-owned businesses in Buffalo, particularly in construction services. Major new projects, including the $1 billion Buffalo school construction program, a new operations center for Adelphia Communications, and potentially a new Childrens Hospital, will carry targets for women and minority-owned business participation.

Oscar Rayford, who runs one of the state's first minority-owned ready-mix concrete companies, hopes most of those contracts stay with local firms, as opposed to minority-owned companies from outside Western New York that set up sales offices here.

"If we're going to solve our problems, then we have to employ our residents and our minority-owned businesses . . . These are returns on our dollars, for the people who have stayed here and toughed it out and continued to pay property taxes," said Rayford, president of Rayford Enterprise in Buffalo.

However, local residents can't expect to throw a sign over their door and watch money roll in, said Edward Watts, president of Watts Engineers in Eggertsville. Timeless business principles, such as supply and demand, will always apply, he said.

"If you can provide construction services, then yes, there's going to be opportunities. There has to be a market for whatever product or service your business is going to provide. There has to be a match there," Watts said.

There are also many challenges entrepreneurs, black or white, have to overcome, Watts said.

Hales did not have it easy. She took a lot of risk, had trouble getting financed and made mistakes along the way.

"When you get down to it and throw caution to the wind, and try it, you find there's a lot of components involved . . . Most of us have dreams, but we're not sure what's required to complete those dreams. Because we've never investigated it. You may possess a skill for a particular job. But you may not possess the skills to run a business," she said.

Hales has been there too, finding her own business skills lacking. After investing retirement savings and getting a small business loan, she started to buy a day care center in Niagara Falls. Then she found out the business was bankrupt.

"I talked to some business people who said 'Mary, did you do your due diligence?' And I said, 'What's due diligence?' "

So she entered a 10-month entrepreneurial certificate program at UB which involves a lot of peer review and mentoring from other business owners.

Hales said she was lucky to get Joseph Wolfson as a mentor. Wolfson, president of a credit and debit card processing service named Cartel Network, is a career banker who helped her with the financial end.

Peer counseling was also valuable to Watts, another graduate of UB's program.

"I always learn a lot by talking to people who have been where I'm trying to go," said Watts, who left his job as a senior environmental engineer with Dupont in 1987 to start a firm now employing 35 people. "Even though there are different types of businesses, a lot of the problems are the same."

Hales and a group of 25 other business owners have met once a month since completing the program in June 1999.

Such networking is essential in business and it's one area where African-Americans have traditionally faced challenges, Watts said.

"A big part of being in business is developing relationships. And a lot of times, the African-American doesn't have the chance to develop those as readily as the white business owner. But I think that's improving," he said.

Access to capital also has been a historical obstacle for many African-Americans, but that has also slowly changed. With the proliferation of targeted lending programs for minorities, and banks looking to improve their small business lending and Community Reinvestment Act records, money is available.

"The access is there, but you've got to understand the full picture. If you're asking someone for $100,000, you've got to have something to back that up. You've got to have collateral and it can't just be a concept on a piece of paper," Hales said.

HSBC Bank USA is a co-sponsor of the free seminar Wednesday.

"We believe this conference will be a catalyst for potential minority entrepreneurs and we look forward to working with them to make their dreams a reality," said Brian Keating, western region president of HSBC.

About 350 entrepreneurs have been through UB's certificate program, which costs several thousand dollars. Broadening participant diversity is a goal, said executive director Marianne Sullivan.

"We've never really reached out to the minority community before and we don't get a tremendous amount of African-Americans coming to our programs. We'd like to offer more programs like this in the future. We hope this is the start of something," Sullivan said.

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