Faith and family are the foundation of Nasreen Akhtar’s life. The entrepreneur, who earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at NU, feels compelled by her Muslim faith to serve others. For the past five years, that service has included a turkey giveaway in the city of Niagara Falls.
“We wanted to give to the community that we do business in,” she said. “And I grew up in Niagara Falls, so it’s just a way to say thank you for molding me to where I’m at.”
Nasreen was born in Pakistan, the only daughter of parents who came to the United States when she was 7, seeking a better life for their five children. Originally settling in Brooklyn, N.Y., they moved to Niagara Falls to be closer to family who lived in Toronto.
After graduating from Niagara Falls High School, Nasreen attended Niagara University, earning her bachelor’s degree in business management in 2007, and her master’s in interdisciplinary studies in 2011—the first female in her family to graduate from college. By then, she was already married with two young boys. She worked for a couple of years before deciding to stay at home with her children, and in 2014, she and her family, which now included a third son, relocated to Colorado, where her husband, Anas Mangla, was transferred for his job.
Nasreen had always had an interest in business, having done threading (a method of hair removal) since she was young, but saw it as more of a pastime than a way to make a living. In Colorado, she had the opportunity to earn her esthetician license and expand her threading business into what became Beauty by Naz. In just a year, she had a clientele of more than 200 people.
In 2015, she and her family returned to Niagara Falls to manage Aero Transportation, the medical transport business her father had established. She continued Beauty by Naz by appointment while running Aero Transportation and taking care of her children.
Because she handles every aspect of the business, Nasreen got to know her clients, many of whom had been with the transportation company since it started in 2010. Nasreen sees them all as family.
“We work with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and abilities,” she said. “I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter where you come from—we’re all human beings and we all have the same struggles. So we’re not very different from one another.”
As she got to know her customers on a personal level, she began to see how many of her neighbors were in need, especially around the holidays. She wanted to help, so she decided to give away turkeys and side dishes at Thanksgiving. Over the past five years, the giveaway has grown through community sponsorships and included Christmas giveaways, as well. This year, more than 400 turkeys were distributed.
“We couldn’t do it without our volunteers,” she said.
Feeding others was a tradition passed down from her mother, Farzana, who would make family recipes for people who visited. Nasreen plans to honor her mother, who recently passed away, during next year’s turkey giveaway.
Family traditions are the basis of Nasreen’s newest business, as well. The Naz 716 Business and Cultural Center in Niagara Falls, a co-working, business, and cultural event space, is intended to be the go-to center for people to share their customs, socialize, and connect with one another.
“My husband and I always envisioned a place where we can help others and give back to the community,” Nasreen said, “as well as display local cultures in the area.”
“I remember I did a Bollywood night at Niagara, and it was such a hit with the students,” she added. “I thought that more of our Pakistani, Indian, and South Asian culture has to be displayed.”
The facility has 16 offices for rent, in addition to meeting space. Nasreen sees it as a center for both business and learning and has connected with BOCES to offer ESL and GED classes. She also offers classes in threading to assist others in starting their own businesses, and hopes to bring small businesses in to help them grow while providing opportunities for people of different backgrounds to get to know and appreciate one another.
“We’re all human beings and we’re so much alike, but people just don’t know that unless you learn about each other,” she said.
Nasreen notes that the courses she took at Niagara, both in business and in the liberal arts, have prepared her for the work she is doing now.
“When you’re at a young age, you don’t realize the value of religion or philosophy courses, but they are preparing you for a bigger world,” she said. “You don’t know that what you learned stays with you, and then you realize this is why you took this course. God’s plan was for me to take business, and this is where I’m at now."