University at Buffalo professors were surprised Wednesday by the strong turnout of local African-American entrepreneurs attending a seminar seeking business advice and access to capital.
UB's town hall meeting on African-American entrepreneurship drew more than 60 people, far exceeding the university's expectations. The morning seminar at the Jacobs Executive Development Center, housed at the Butler Mansion in Buffalo, focused on how business development can empower African-Americans by spreading capital and job opportunities through neighborhoods.
The first-of-its-kind university seminar comes at a crossroads of events that could have a long-term impact on the local minority community.
Race relations surfaced as a critical community topic this week when the NAACP and other black organizations complained at a meeting of the Cheektowaga Town Board about alleged discrimination and racial profiling by town police.
On the economic front, the community is on the cusp of $1 billion in government spending spreading through the city in the next decade to renovate and build public schools.
"Right now, Buffalo is about to experience a millennium event. Understand what this $1 billion means. This will bring an unprecedented number of jobs and opportunities," Henry Taylor, director of the UB Center for Urban Studies said.
Taylor encouraged Deputy Erie County Executive Carl Calabrese and UB School of Management Dean Lewis Mandell, who both participated in the seminar, to dedicate more of their organizational resources to minority business development.
Local leaders need to focus more talent and money on breaking the cycle of poverty on the city's east and west sides, Taylor said. Reconstructing those impoverished neighborhoods could have a "transformational effect" on the city, Taylor said.
More business development, jobs and capital in minority communities would allow local governments to reduce spending on police and emergency services and lead to better returns on educational spending, he said.
"The roadway to the transformation of Buffalo and the Niagara Frontier comes through the eastern side of our city," Taylor said.
Mandell said the strong turnout at Wednesday's event indicates a clear demand for more business education services in the African-American community. He said the UB School of Management plans to work more closely with Taylor's office to plan additional events.
Local African-American business leaders also hope the event was the beginning of a stronger link between the minority business community and the university.
"This is probably long overdue. It's something that we've needed for long time. I'm hoping that this is just the beginning," said Marie Mullen, a partner in a start-up apparel manufacturer in Buffalo called Looks Kill 2.
The seminar included the taped broadcast of a national town hall meeting on African-American entrepreneurship held at Auburn University. The national panel included various experts, including George Fraser, author of "Race for Success: The Ten Best Business Opportunities for Blacks in America."
Topics of the national dialogue included: how more consumer spending and less saving have hurt African-American communities; how minorities can help themselves by spending more of their own money with minority-owned businesses; the important role churches can play as community centers that help foster business development; and how business trends such as mergers and new technologies affect minority businesses.
Fraser said minority business owners need to set their egos aside and explore the benefits of mergers, which include leveraging limited amounts of capital and capturing economies of scale.
"We can no longer have eight different construction firms in a city with three employees each," Fraser said.
While the national panel addressed broad issues, local participants were seeking technical assistance with developing a business plan, finding space in incubators, making contacts and finding the right lenders.
Rossie Miller, co-owner of Rossie & Smith Landscape in Irving, said he came to the seminar for advice on getting a small business loan to buy more equipment. Taylor offered to meet with Miller to discuss the needs of his landscape company and offer free guidance.
Brenda Smith, who hopes to open a day-care center in Buffalo, said she also has trouble finding the technical assistance in getting a business off the ground.
"This gave me some of the entry level information that I need," she said.