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Entrepreneurism by the book - BPL helps residents get their businesses off the ground

It’s not just books you get from the library these days.

Rather, entrepreneurs can turn to the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) for help in starting up new businesses, thanks to BPL’s Power Up initiative. The program, now in its fifth year, provides seminars to Brooklyn entrepreneurs, aiding those who participate tap into the broad coalition of local organizations that help bolster the borough’s economic life.

“We hope to have real life application of library services,” explained Maud Andrew, manager of programs and outreach for BPL. The program, she added, demonstrates “how the library can actually help people realize their dreams and ambitions. Information is powerful. But, this goes a step farther, into the economic development of the community, giving people a way to apply the information and services we offer.”

Those participating in the program put together business plans that are critiqued by business leaders, who choose nine awardees, with one first place winner receiving $15,000 plus $5,000 in business assistance services, and two second place winners each receiving $5,000 plus $5,000 worth of business assistance services. There are also three merit award winners, who receive $750, and three honorable mentions, who receive $500.

This year’s winners, introduced at an award ceremony held at the Central Library, were:

•Brooklyn Fudge, the first place winner, whose founder, Amanda Jones, is trying to parlay an old family recipe into an international company;

•Green Home Green Living, one of two second place winners, whose owner, Elissa Olin, is in the process of opening a store showcasing environmentally-friendly products in Clinton Hill; and,

•Nzinga Knight International, the other second place winner, an eponymous company whose founder designs eveningwear and scarves with American style that yet are appropriate for Muslim women and others who want clothing that is elegant but not revealing.

Her business “could only have happened in Brooklyn,” contended Jones, who said, “I never felt motivated before to make it a business, but the entrepreneurism and creative climate of Brooklyn were the impetus to make me start experimenting.” Jones recalled having a conversation with another woman back in 2006, shortly after moving to the borough. “I said, ‘I make great fudge but that doesn’t make me Martha Stewart or Rachael Ray.’ She said, ‘Why not? That’s what Brooklyn needs.’”

From that conversation to her present status was something of a journey. Jones recalls having hooked into two different kitchen incubators in the borough. At the second, at Kingsborough Community College, she learned of a not-for-profit group that was organizing a Kosher kitchen. “They said, ‘Do you want to make Kosher food?’ While that, in itself, was something of a challenge, the product that Jones eventually wound up with was not only Kosher but also all-natural and vegan, “opening up those markets to us,” Jones noted.

Olin’s idea -- “to have a one-stop shop where people who want to make their homes greener can easily get what they need” --was a matter of developing a retail business to meet an existing need. Her store, which is scheduled to open on April 22nd, Earth Day, will feature a wide range of products from sheets and towels to cleaning supplies to organic and natural coffee and chocolate.

It was the library, however, that has helped her to turn her vision into reality. “They inspired me to write a very thorough business plan and to do extensive research.” In addition, said Olin, the cash award, “has made it possible for me to focus full-time on the build-out and stocking of the store. That’s extraordinary. A lot of businesses get stuck because the owner has to work another job. You can do it, but it’s like juggling cats.”

Knight’s business grew in large part out of her own need. An observant Muslim, she grew up facing the difficulty of finding stylish clothing that was also “modest. “When I started learning about fashion design in college,” Knight went on, “I realized I could really insert who I am as a person as well as what my design aesthetic is, and create something new and exciting.”

What Power Up had done for her, Knight said, “is provide classes and guidance as well as resources for researching the market.” They also helped her refine her business plan. Her business, Knight added, “has so much potential. It’s really an untapped market. I’m presenting an option that usually doesn’t exist in eveningwear.”

How effective is PowerUp? The proof is in the pudding. Numerous businesses that have participated are now up and running, noted Andrews. “People really do go into business,” she stressed.

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