May 2, 2006

Johnson School MBAs help diverse group of aspiring entrepreneurs

Successful startup businesses are a way to make a town or neighborhood more economically vibrant. But mainstream agencies that help people start and sustain small businesses have often overlooked the minority community.

That's why the Cornell-initiated Ithaca Multicultural Business Symposium, which took place at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) April 22, was aimed at that audience.

More than a year in the making, the symposium was the brainchild of Jennifer Turner, Karson Clancy and Kenyattah Robinson -- three MBA students at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management. As Roy H. Park Fellows they must complete a significant project of lasting value to the community, and the symposium filled the bill.

"We wanted to help local would-be entrepreneurs achieve their own American dream -- including individuals and demographic groups who, if not for small business ownership, might be shut out of the labor market," explained Robinson.

Said Turner: "We realized most Ithacans did not know about the abundant resources available to help aspiring entrepreneurs. Our goal was to provide a forum where we could showcase all the resources, inspire individuals and lay the foundation for a small-business network."

"Some great ideas reside within Ithaca's multicultural community," said Clancy. "We all benefit when we help translate them into reality."

The diverse audience of close to 50 people was attentive as a panel of local entrepreneurs shared success stories and lessons learned.

"You have to always be ahead of trends, take risks and, if your ideas don't work out, pick yourself up and keep going," said Awura-Abena Ansah, who owns Alta Spa, an Ithaca day spa and full-service salon. "Keep trying and find ways to be more creative," said Christine Barksdale, who owns Diaspora Gallery, which sells Afro-centric art.

"I wear a button that says, 'Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want to get,'" said Al Smith, co-owner of Ithaca's Shortstop Deli. Smith also advised, "Get out there, interact with your customers and see what they want."

"If you have a quality product and a customer base, you will succeed," said Heather Lane, co-owner of Purity Ice Cream.

"Have faith in yourself," said Brian Hunt, who owns Re-Markable Paint Co., which makes paint for athletic playing fields. "It's hard work, but if you're doing what you like it's a pleasure."

The symposium also offered workshops on starting small businesses, best sources for financing a business startup and a small business case study.

Lwandiko Masinde, an aspiring entrepreneur, said the sessions were

"excellent, very well-organized. I learned it's a good idea to keep on entertaining my ideas of someday starting a business."

"People's stories are the most dynamic example," said Jill Marie, who works for a startup company that makes organic algae capsules, a wild-food health supplement. She attended the symposium, she said, for marketing ideas.

Another attendee said she was pleased to see the Johnson School leverage such Ithaca resources as GIAC and the Multicultural Resource Center to reach out to the city's minority community.

Co-organizer Turner said, "While people took a lot away from the day, the true success will be when we return to Ithaca in the next few years and see that a few of our attendees started their own businesses." Turner, Robinson and Clancy hope to find others to take over the symposium after they graduate this May.