Tia Jackson, NUOP program director; Luke Woepple, M&T regional manager; Jessica Billingslea (The Bling Fairy); the Rev. James Maher, C.M., Niagara University president; Mark Laurrie, superintendent of the Niagara Falls City School District; Dasha Colvin (Orlori Family Daycare); Lucy Muto, M&T Bank vice president; Zahra Evans (Origins of Beauty); and NU alumna Nasreen Akhtar, ’07, MA’11, president of NAZ 716.

A business development program for multicultural small-business owners in Niagara County culminated on June 18, when $10,000 in grant funding was awarded to jumpstart the success of the three participating businesses demonstrating the greatest growth potential.

Founders Dasha Colvin of Orlori Family Daycare; Zahra Evans of Origins of Beauty; and Jessica Billingslea of the Bling Fairy were selected for prizes of $5,000, $3,000, and $2,000, respectively, 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.

The competition was held at the conclusion of the Multicultural Small Business Innovation Lab, an initiative that provides local entrepreneurs with the guidance, education, and resources necessary to start and build businesses that strengthen neighborhoods and meet community needs. Niagara University partnered with M&T Bank to bring the lab to Niagara County where, for five weeks, 10 business owners developed skills to accelerate their entrepreneurial journey and expand their expertise in critical areas, such as creating business plans, establishing credit, accessing capital, marketing, networking, and more. The sessions were held in the Academic Complex on the NU campus.

The 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.

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.