By Kevin Manne
In 2020, Shareefa Albanna owned two businesses: an Allstate insurance agency branch and Arabica Enterprises, an international grocery market with a takeout kitchen and catering services, both in Lackawanna, New York.
As she was juggling both businesses—and amid a global pandemic—Albanna decided to enroll in the M&T Bank Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs (MWEE) program, offered by the School of Management’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL). The program creates opportunities for individuals leading minority- and women-owned enterprises into advanced stages of business development.
In MWEE she discovered that sometimes the best business move is to move on, and decided to sell the insurance agency for a profit and focus on Arabica.
“It was in that program that I said, ‘You know, you can be a jack of all trades and a master of none—or you can be a master of everything,’” Albanna says. “It’s very rare, but I wanted to be the anomaly—I just needed to learn when a business wasn’t serving its purpose anymore.”
After completing the emerging entrepreneurs program, Albanna received a phone call that would change the trajectory of her life.
“I was planning on moving back to Michigan, but I got a call from the CEL and they told me about an opportunity to enroll in the Core program,” she says. “I’m absolutely grateful that I took that spot—the center is near and dear to my heart and it was one of the main reasons I decided to stay in Buffalo.”
That opportunity was a scholarship, which allowed three MWEE grads to enroll in the CEL Core program last fall at no charge thanks to a generous bequest from the late Ruth Huppuch and the Orchard Park Presbyterian Church. Huppuch, a former social studies teacher in the Orchard Park School District, left her gift with the church to support projects that effect social justice, advance educational opportunities and positively affect those in need.
Thanks to what she’s learned at Core, Albanna has increased revenue at Arabica Enterprises by 45% and widened its profit margins, all while decreasing turnover and improving company culture.
“I’ve learned how to lead my team as a team member as opposed to being a boss,” she says. “Core took me from being a business owner to an entrepreneur.”
The flagship program of the CEL, Core enhances the talents and operating abilities of practicing entrepreneurs and empowers them to overcome business challenges, create new opportunities and develop meaningful connections in the business community.
Joining Albanna in Core last fall thanks to Huppuch’s bequest were Kenyana David, founder and CEO of boutique email marketing firm 81Eighteen; and Nicole Davis, CEO and designer at Franci Jewelry.
Kenyana David is a two-time graduate of the MWEE program—first in 2009 and again in 2019, and has a BS in economics along with an MBA from the University of Phoenix.
She enrolled in the emerging entrepreneurs program in 2009 because she had her company, but with an economics degree, she needed help honing her business skills. Ten years later, she returned to get help focusing her business even further.
As she transitioned to Core, David says she learned to make decisions based on what she discovered through that training.
“With Core I was a little intimidated at first, but it helped me come to terms with where my challenges were, what they are and not be embarrassed about it,” she says. “Everyone has challenges in businesses.”
David also credits Core for the growth of her business.
“I’m doing amazing things in my business because the CEL gave me an objective confidence,” she says. “I know where my areas of opportunity are, I am hyper aware of my strengths and weaknesses, and I know I can go there for support. They ask me the questions that make me think more deeply about my business.”
For Nicole Davis, MWEE was a guiding light through the storm of the COVID-19 pandemic. She had just opened a showroom for Franci Jewelry and, with no weddings or public events, demand for her product plummeted.
With the support of CEL, Davis pivoted her business into making simple jewelry for gifts that people were still buying, like Mother’s Day birthstone bracelets.
“We were able to pay our rent and survive through that really trying time and I don’t know if that would’ve happened if I weren’t in MWEE at the time,” she says.
So when the opportunity arose to take her CEL experience to the next level in Core, Davis jumped at it.
“The emerging entrepreneurs program took me up one step in business, but in Core I have grown so much as a businesswoman and as a person,” she says. “Core has breathed new life into my business to the point where I’m excited about it and it’s growing, when not long ago I didn’t even know if we’d bounce back from COVID.”
All three entrepreneurs will make a lasting impact, thanks to the Huppuch bequest and their Core experience.
Nicole Davis has been invited to take Franci Jewelry international, and will be visiting Paris for fashion week in September.
Kenyana David continues to build 81Eighteen and is currently earning a PhD in business administration while teaching business to the next generation as an adjunct professor at Medaille University.
And Shareefa Albanna has committed to building the startup scene in Buffalo through her new role as startup success manager for UB’s Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships.
“Economic development and prosperity are my passions, and through this new position I’ll be able to help build successful startups on a bigger scale than ever,” she says.