Hand in Hand

Scranton’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Center helps female small-business owners get their start, and in turn supports the local economy and community.

Patricia Dickert-Nieves stands (at left, in green) at Terra Preta, the restaurant she started thanks in part to a class she took through the Women’s Entrepreneurship Center
Patricia Dickert-Nieves stands (at left, in green) at Terra Preta, the restaurant she started thanks in part to a class she took through the Women’s Entrepreneurship Center

Patricia Dickert-Nieves was at a crossroads, working at a nonprofit and thinking about law school, when she heard about the Women’s Entrepreneurship Center (WEC) at The University of Scranton.

The WEC, a partnership between the Kania School of Management (KSOM) and the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), offers business startup information, guidance and encouragement to low-income women and women in transition. In 2012, Dickert-Nieves participated in the center’s six-week program, StartUP, which details the process of starting your own small business.

“I came into the program with a passion to do something in my community that allowed me to be of service to the community, but I didn’t know what that looked like,” she said. She was considering opening a wellness center, café or restaurant.

The Right Business

“The program helped me focus,” said Dickert-Nieves. “[The consultants] spoke about building a business plan, and within that, market research, financial planning, selfpromotion and brand value.”

In 2014, Dickert-Nieves and her husband, Gregory, opened Terra Preta, a farm-to-table restaurant located in the historic Ritz Theater building in downtown Scranton. Just two years later, they won the 2016 Scranton Chamber of Commerce Sage Award for New and Emerging Business of the Year.

Terra Preta is Portuguese for “rich earth,” which embodies the dishes on the menu. “It is ‘rich’ meaning nutrient rich; all of the food we serve is nutritionally dense and it’s good for you,” Dickert-Nieves said. The food is made from scratch using meat, dairy and produce purchased from local farmers, and the menu changes seasonally based on crops. Beyond the kitchen, Terra Preta hosted a “Global Tastes of Scranton” event, where refugees cook food from their native countries, sharing their culture with the community.

“Terra Preta would be a different business venture if it weren’t for the Women’s Entrepreneurship Center,” said Dickert-Nieves. “I didn’t think I was going to be an entrepreneur or be my own boss, but when I took this class, I saw it was a possibility.”

Besides StartUP, the WEC also hosts Coffee and Confidence sessions once a month, where local business owners are invited to share their stories and advice.

Last September, Karen Graytock ’00 saw a newspaper ad for Coffee and Confidence and decided to attend. “I had recently been laid off from a job I’d held for more than 16 years, and I’d always thought about starting my own business, so everything seemed to be happening at the right time,” she said.

Energized by that initial session, she enrolled in Start- UP the next month and began making a business plan for her own health care consulting business, drawing on her background in critical care nursing and pharmaceutical sales. Just a few months after finishing the six-week class, Graytock is already building a client base for her company, Consulting KG, LLC, which helps health care companies market products to physicians’ offices.

A Community Impact

Lisa Hall Zielinski, director of the SBDC, estimates that the WEC serves 50-75 women annually. Their newest initiative is a financial literacy program, in partnership with Scranton’s nonprofit Women in Philanthropy organization, which enables women to qualify for small-business loans.

“We all work together to make an impact as a community,” said Hall Zielinski. “To create a business creates more jobs.”

Donna Simpson is the consultant manager at the SBDC and teaches the accounting portion of StartUP. The WEC events are full of “synergy,” she says. “Anytime you put a group of women together, great things happen.”

One of the defining features of the WEC programs is that they are offered free of charge, thanks to funding provided through the KSOM partnership.

Michael O. Mensah, Ph.D., dean of KSOM, founded the center in 2009. “We are committed to partnering with the local economy. That is part of the vision and strategic planning for the business school,” said Mensah. But he was also inspired by his mother, Madam Salomey Oforiwa (pictured at left), who was an entrepreneur in her native Ghana. She passed away in December 2016 at 92 years old. He created the program, in part, to honor her.

“My mother was a serial entrepreneur,” he said proudly. “She did anything to keep her busy and provide the funds needed to help my father take care of their eight children. I thought, ‘What would have happened in her life if someone had offered her the kind of help we are offering in this program?’” 

Experiential Learning

In addition to supporting the aspiring business owners, one of the WEC’s chief goals is to offer experiential learning opportunities for KSOM students. Since the center opened in 2009, 34 students have worked as interns. “When we started this, I was thinking it was all about the women, but it turned out to be just as much about the students,” said Hall Zielinski.

Denise Rizzo ’17 and Claire Marangelli ’16 work as interns at the WEC. Rizzo, a business administration/human resources major and varsity basketball player, does market research for the program participants, and also writes articles about successful StartUP graduates for the Northeast Pennsylvania Business Journal’s “Celebrating Women Entrepreneurs” column.

“I am lucky enough to get real-life experience helping people pursue their dreams,” said Rizzo. “The type of skills you gain from working directly with people on their businesses is something that cannot be taught in the classroom. I have definitely developed better communication skills, researching skills . . . [and a] sense of autonomy within my position, as the staff has gotten to know me and trust me with more projects.”

Marangelli, who is pursuing her MBA at Scranton, has worked at the center since her sophomore year and assists participants with market research and business plans. Working at the WEC has shown her that there is power in asking for assistance.

“I have seen that through the collaboration of clients and colleagues, brilliant outcomes can be obtained — much more than could have occurred through just one person,” said Marangelli. “Hearing the women’s stories evokes a sense of confidence that no matter where your path in life takes you, hard work and determination will allow you to get there.”


Watch footage from the Global Tastes event, here.

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