In Burma, a country with lax regulations, new businesses can be launched on a whim.
“If you want to start a business, you just start it,” said Pau Du. “You find a place and you open. It’s very easy.”
But in 2013 when Du, a Burmese refugee, tried to open a Thai eatery in Buffalo, it wasn’t so easy. He first needed to draft a business plan, apply for licenses and permits, obtain a tax ID and get insurance. The multistep process was dizzying.
“It’s difficult here; there are a lot of steps,” he said. Unversed in the American business process, Du also couldn’t speak English.
“I really didn’t know how to do it,” he admitted, speaking with the help of his teenage daughter.
So Du called WEDI - the Westminster Economic Development Initiative – for guidance. And three months later, he was serving up pad thai and pad ka pow at his Family Thai restaurant in WEDI’s international business incubator, the West Side Bazaar on Grant Street.
“If it wasn’t for WEDI, I wouldn’t be open; I wouldn’t have a business,” Du said.
With its West Side Bazaar, one-on-one business training and micro-lending programs, WEDI is building a growing list of success stories and becoming a beacon for immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs.
And WEDI’s help is not just for immigrants.
Tanya Candeleria is American and had previously run a small business.
Still, Candeleria and her husband turned to WEDI to set up a commercial cleaning firm that employs young adults on the West Side.
“It was like having a business consultant without a consultant’s fees, which is huge when you’re starting a business and you’re pinching pennies,” she said.
WEDI was recently awarded grant money from various sources totaling almost $500,000 to further it efforts.
Business owners of varying stripes credit WEDI for help starting or improving their ventures. “They reviewed our business plan and guided us when we were looking for a location,” said Aung Myat, a native of Burma and co-owner of I.T. Garden, a computer repair and sales business. “And then they helped us negotiate the terms of our long-term lease.”
In its seven years, WEDI has helped bring more than 30 business ideas to fruition and given micro-loans to 16 of those startups. In the process it contributed to the revitalization of a part of the West Side.
“There are so many businesses on Grant Street because WEDI,” said City Council Member David A. Rivera. “Grant Street has been re-engerized. It’s thriving now. They’ve made my job a lot easier, and I give them all the credit for the work that they do.”
Refugees and immigrants comprise 75 percent of WEDI’s client base. The program doesn’t just teach business competency. It helps with cultural competency and does more hand-holding than similar programs.
“I think WEDI is... emotionally, personally (and in a tactile way) on the ground and involved day-to-day with the businesses on the West Side, especially in the immigrant community,” said Susan A. McCartney, the director of Small Business Development Center at SUNY Buffalo State. “They offer a very strong support system to entrepreneurs.”
WEDI grows up
As its clients have grown, WEDI itself has raised its own expectations. Started as a volunteer-run church program, it has become a pillar of the small community, and with that role came bigger dreams.
The recently-awarded nearly half-million dollars in grant money has meant a rebirth of the program. It won a $100,000 grant from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo in 2012. Last fall, it received $250,000 from the Oishei Foundation, and in May it was one of four nonprofits to receive $100,000 from First Niagara Financial Group. The WNY Foundation and the Josephine Goodyear Foundation also provided funding for the program’s ongoing transformation.
“It’s a change in what we are capable of doing,” said Bonnie Smith, WEDI’s founding executive director and a current board member. “This is huge for WEDI and the West Side. “Now we’re able to have a greater impact, with more resources, we can reach more people.”
Changes are happening quickly. Programs like the micro-lending initiative are being revamped. The loan program, now more structured, will become the area’s only certified community development financial institution. CDFIs offer affordable lending to populations under-served by traditional banks.
In less than a year, WEDI has gone from being volunteer-run to having a paid staff of seven, and from holding coaching sessions at coffee shops and park benches to its own conference room in its own building on Grant Street. An open house will be held from 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday to mark the grand opening of the office at 436 Grant.
The program brought in John McKeone, a business adviser from the Small Business Development Center at Buffalo State, to be its economic development director. And a director to run its micro-loan operation is coming onboard.
Bissell, who for two years was an Americorps volunteer with WEDI, is new the full-time, paid executive director. He’s 25 years old, and Du, Myat and other business owners can’t stop singing his praises.
“It was Ben for everything I needed,” Du said. “He did everything.”
WEDI was started in 2007 by two members of the Westminster Presbyterian Church on Delaware Avenue. Smith, also a member of the church and longtime business owner, was the volunteer executive director. The church held a drive within its congregation to raise money to get things going.
“It was the church that allowed all this to happen; It all started there, and we’re grateful to them,” Rivera said.
Its mission wasn’t necessarily economic development, but whatever it took to revitalize the West Side. Ferguson Avenue – a notoriously blighted street off Grant Street near West Ferry Street – was its first project. With a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, the block was eventually transformed.
In 2008, it became a nonprofit and in 2009 joined the newly formed West Side Stake Holders. That group, initiated by Rivera, is comprised of West Side agencies, business owners and other concerned residents. The need for a business incubator to nurture micro-businesses emerged from the group’s meeting.
The West Side Bazaar, a collection of vendors from around the globe, selling food, jewelry and clothing, opened in 2011. Louise Sano, owner of Global Villages and another shop on Grant Street, is one of the successful graduates of the incubator. By the end of 2012, the bazaar moved to a bigger space that could accommodate up to 21 businesses.
While WEDI does have a long-running, successful after-school program and it has dabbled in housing, Bissell said it’s focus now will be providing training and services to prospective and existing businesses, starting with Grant Street.
“Rather than being a project-by-project kind of organization, we’re now an organization that wants to have a sustainable impact in our community,” Bissell said.