By Kevin Manne
When Zandra Lewis enrolled in the Allstate Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs (MWEE) program in 2007, she was already an established entrepreneur with her home business, Azariah’s. She signed up hoping to enhance her hat and accessory business and make it more profitable.
Her daughter, Tamara Lewis-Cunningham, joined her in the program. She was attracted by the networking opportunities and the chance to be immersed in Buffalo’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Neither immediately jumped into big new startup plans after graduating from MWEE. Lewis chose to concentrate on ministry, serving as first lady of Miracle Missions Full Gospel Church, where her husband, the Rev. James A. Lewis III, was pastor. Her daughter focused on a corporate career and raising her children as a single mother.
But both had a hand in Azariah’s Innocence—a bath and beauty products startup founded by 9-year-old Zandra Cunningham—Lewis’ granddaughter and Lewis-Cunningham’s daughter.
“My fascination with entrepreneurship was a result of my dad’s refusal to buy my beloved lip balm,” says Cunningham. “His ‘no’ forced me to do the work and make my own.”
After a few years of selling products at area farmers markets and in a store with her grandmother at the West Side Bazaar, Cunningham wanted to learn more about running her own business, so her mother recommended the MWEE program.
“My mom and I researched what was out there and found there really weren’t any programs to teach kids about business,” says Cunningham. “She suggested I try the MWEE program since she had done it.”
At just 13 years old, Cunningham enrolled in the MWEE program and became the youngest person to ever complete it.
Since 2005, the MWEE program has helped more than 300 minority and women entrepreneurs move their companies to the next stage of development by forging relationships with successful business owners, setting objectives and outcomes for business plans, connecting with existing resources and more. The program is a joint venture by the School of Management’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL) and the UB Center for Urban Studies and is partially funded with a generous grant from The Allstate Foundation.
Cunningham says the biggest takeaways from the program for her were the business plan she set and the advice from her mentor, Merry Constantino, president of ProductLogic: Rebrand the business to “Zandra.”
“Outside of my family, Merry was the first adult who spoke with me directly as a business owner,” says Cunningham. “She didn’t care how old I was; she saw the bigger picture and told me that if I was serious about the company, this is what I needed to do.”
After MWEE, business boomed. They quickly outgrew their space at The Foundry and moved production to the Pierce Arrow Commerce Park, where they’ve established a production facility, showroom and classroom space. Cunningham’s specialty was product development, while mom focused on operations and grandma put the finishing touches on products in production, packaging and fulfillment.
Following a big break that put Zandra products in 110 Paper Source stores, Cunningham appeared on Good Morning America with her line of products for the show’s “Steals and Deals” segment, resulting in orders from Costco, Wegmans and Whole Foods.
Earlier this year, the company landed a deal with Target for a limited-release gift box that was sold in 707 stores nationwide and online for the retailer’s Black History Month assortment. The order was so big it was more than double what the company had ever produced.
Now 18, Cunningham is in full control of the Zandra brand and is actively seeking funding to take the business to the next level. Most recently, she earned $200,000 in funding and mentorship through Americans Serving Americans, via a group of investors called the Eagle’s Nest who invest in small businesses, Shark Tank-style. Zandra was the only company pitch to receive a unanimous “yes” from all seven investors.
In addition, the company just signed a deal with health and beauty marketplace Pharmapacks, which will open the door to e-commerce sales on the company’s storefront and on Amazon.com.
Through it all, the three say that the key to making the family dynamic work in a successful business has been communication.
“We’ve always been able to meet in the middle once everyone understands the direction we need to go in and why,” says Lewis-Cunningham.
“It’s really amazing for us to be able to work together and still learn from each other,” says Cunningham. “The best part about it is just being able to feed that energy off of family members who know you so well.”
To learn more about the MWEE program or apply, visit mgt.buffalo.edu/mwee.