Niagara University alumnus Darius Myles, ’15, owner of DMyles General Construction, and Michelle Cole of ColeWorldDesignz, were two of the panelists at a networking event in December 2023 for minority- and women-owned business startups.

Niagara University has partnered with M&T Bank to bring a multicultural small business innovation lab to Niagara County. The initiative, which is designed to empower, develop, and grow racially and ethnically diverse small businesses, is another critical step in the university’s commitment to the growth and revitalization of Niagara Falls.

This relationship between NU and M&T was established last fall, when the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., Niagara University president, and Eric Feldstein, M&T Bank regional president for Western New York, met to discuss ways the two organizations could work together for the betterment of the region.

Following that meeting, the university’s Levesque Institute for Civic Engagement and M&T co-hosted a networking event in December for minority- and women-owned business startups in the Niagara Falls community that aimed to leverage partnerships and foster sustained community initiatives to drive economic growth in Niagara Falls and Niagara County.

The event featured a panel of local business owners in Niagara Falls, as well as resource tables featuring representatives of organizations supporting small businesses.

Among the presenters were Niagara University alumni Nasreen Akhtar, '07, MAIS’11, owner of NAZ 716 Business and Cultural Center; Rachel Dorgan, ’17, and Morgan Genovese, ’19, MBA’12, owners of the Gold Bar and Archives; and Darius Myles, ’15, owner of DMyles General Construction. Michelle Cole of ColeWorldDesignz was also a panelist.

Resource tables were hosted by M&T Bank, Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce, the City of Niagara Falls Economic Development Office, the Small Business Development Center, Ibero, Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp., and Pursuit.

“We wanted to offer an event that would empower MWBE business owners, at all stages of business, by providing resources and opportunities to share, connect, and learn from the experiences of like-minded entrepreneurial individuals, while allowing supporting organizations to gather feedback regarding the outstanding unmet needs of the community,” said Karen Kwandrans, associate vice president of strategic and external relations at Niagara University.

The innovation lab builds on this work by providing local entrepreneurs with the guidance, education, and resources necessary to start and build businesses that strengthen neighborhoods and meet community needs.

For five weeks, from May 21 through June 18, 35 individuals who have recently launched businesses in Niagara County will have the opportunity to develop skills to accelerate their entrepreneurial journey and grow their expertise in critical areas, such as creating business plans, establishing credit, accessing capital, marketing, networking, and more. The sessions will be held in the Academic Complex on the Niagara University campus and feature speakers including Niagara University faculty, M&T employees, and community leaders.

To jumpstart the success of these businesses, the program will end with a pitch competition. Five businesses will be chosen by Niagara alumnus Isaac De Los Santos, '15, vice president, Business Banking, at M&T, and Joseph Winter, associate professor of accounting and academic director of Niagara University’s Family Business Center, to participate in the contest, which will award a total of $10,000 in grant funding. Three winners will be selected based on factors including the market or community needs the business addresses, the effectiveness of their business plan, their ability to adapt, and their potential for growth and community impact.

“We strongly believe that small businesses are the backbone of our local economy and provide tremendous value,” said Kwandrans. “This lab will encourage and support minority-owned startups by offering them the resources they need for success.”

M&T Bank launched its Multicultural Small Business Innovation Lab in 2021 in response to a community challenge identified in conversations with local leaders, area nonprofits, and business customers who felt the region’s entrepreneurial support ecosystem needed to be more accessible for multicultural businesses. Emphasizing inclusion and access, this growing initiative provides solutions for ongoing business education, guidance to navigate everyday challenges, mentoring from successful business leaders, and more.