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Business seminar kick-starts urban entrepreneurs

Thirteen years ago, Lenny Johnson was a man who dreamed of starting his own business.

Today, thanks in part to an annual seminar and its creators, he describes himself as a success story. Johnson, president of L&D Johnson Plumbing, is one of many who have cultivated knowledge they received from Straight Talk, an annual small-business conference centered on urban communities, and harvested their dreams.

"It gave me encouragement," he said Saturday. "It put me in touch with the banks, the free advice. It kind of helped me start my business plan."

That business plan, begun in 1999, eventually led to his recognition as the 2009 U.S. Small Business Administration's Region II Minority Business Person of the Year, a trip to the White House and the opportunity to meet President Obama during his 2010 Buffalo visit.

Johnson was a first-time speaker Saturday at this year's seminar, the 15th, at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. About 300 people attended seminars on business plans, credit building, loans, government contracts, taxes and marketing. The event is a joint venture of the U.S. Small Business Administration's local office and the local branch of educational nonprofit SCORE.

Mayor Byron W. Brown, Erie County Executive Chris Collins and several experts from the business community addressed registrants, who will have the opportunity to attend eight follow-up classes free at Medaille College. Others may attend for a small fee.

"In one day, Straight Talk exposes people to a series of lectures and presentations they could not get anywhere else," SCORE mentor Charles King said. "It helps people to move to the next step or decide they are not yet ready for business, which can be difficult."

Brown also congratulated the program. "It gives Buffalo the opportunity to promote the city," Brown said. "Buffalo is a great place to do business. Over the past year, we've been able to reduce tax rates. And there is a new array of programs to be announced soon."

Johnson is among one-time attendees who have taken what they have learned and used it not only for their own efforts but also to create a culture of entrepreneurship for their children. He said he helped his daughter, 24-year-old Talia Johnson, craft her business plan and encouraged her to attend Straight Talk to network.

She said she did not find it overly difficult to start her material-suppl business, Minority Woman Business Enterprise Constructors, in June.

"So many people are willing to help," she said. "The SBA. UB. I would encourage people to research. Learn about what's out there. Talk to other people, and find out about their businesses."

Another award winner, who got her start before Straight Talk but uses it for networking, attended with her son.

Joan Yang, recently honored for her success with her material-supply company, Rand & Jones Enterprises Inc., brought her son to the conference for the third time.

"He needs to develop his own," she said.

Her son, Chris Wan, 29, started the construction business Dyno Group in 2009.

"I've learned a lot from the different presentations in terms of resources for minority businesses," he said. "It's always challenging [to start a business], but there is a lot of support."

Straight Talk began as an effort to reach out to the minority community, SCORE Chairman Frank Uhlman said.

"It has expanded beyond that, but it still places a high emphasis on it," he said. "And you'll see that reflected in the list of speakers."

Yang, whose business is entirely minority and female, likes the event for that reason.

"There is a big resource of minority females in Buffalo," she said. "People have to tap into it. I am living proof."

e-mail: vsherry@buffnews.com

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