Entrepreneurs have a unique ability to find solutions to problems that tend to be overlooked by others. When Zaw Win, Westminster Economic Development Initiative's (WEDI) Entrepreneur of the Year, first came to WEDI in 2009 he was looking to create a safe environment for refugees to do laundry.
Being a refugee of Burma himself, he understood the need for a safe place to clean clothes, interact with other refugees, and the importance of creating community. The WASH Project (formerly, Westside Value Laundry) was born with the assistance of a WEDI loan.
Westminster Economic Development Initiative provides business loans and resources to economically disadvantaged people in Buffalo, N.Y. with a focus on the West Side. WEDI aims to reduce barriers to success and opportunity through economic development, community building, and education. “WEDI empowers those who face barriers to starting and growing viable businesses, including lack of access to capital," says Ben Bissell, Executive Director of Westminster Economic Development Initiative. “We encourage community members through both a supportive and rigorous process of business planning and implementation, primarily through one-on-one counseling sessions, to ensure they are as successful as they can be. Those who demonstrate capacity to excel may receive a loan, and we love to see them grow."
The WASH Project spurred conversations. Zaw Win had hundreds, if not thousands, of conversations with other refugees. He heard their struggles, their triumphs, and was there to help when they didn't know where else to turn. "There was a time one of my customers came in and needed help getting medication for her 91-year old father. She had tried calling the pharmacist and insurance provider, but language caused a barrier for her. She came to me, and I helped. I got on the phone and made the calls for her until her father had his medication," recalls Win.
From his own experience and hearing from community members, Zaw Win understood the financial hardship on refugees. Most had trouble finding jobs, despite being skilled workers in their country of origin. Zaw Win and his wife, Naing, set out to create a new business that would provide the West Side community with additional income.
"Interacting with other Buffalo refugees at the WASH Project gave Zaw insight into another way he could help his community — providing a source of supplemental income. That's how, Westside Value Redemption was born" says Caitlin Cosentino, WEDI Economic Development Specialist, who works closely with Zaw and Naing.
Westside Value Redemption is the first can and bottle redemption center on the West Side. Customers collect bottles and cans and receive cash from Westside Value Redemption when they drop them off. But Zaw and Naing's dedication does not stop there. They took it one step further by renting a U-Haul to bring customers to New Era Field during Buffalo Bills games. "One family earned $400 from collecting cans and bottles at just one tailgate. This family could never have imagined earning $400 in one day," says Win.
Westside Value Redemption regularly outperforms redemption services at Wegmans and Walmart and expanded to a second location in February. Zaw and Naing continually look for new ventures to further their community and in turn create jobs that further Buffalo's West Side economy.
WEDI honored Zaw Win as Entrepreneur of the Year on February 9th, 2018 at Rich's Atrium during Winterfest. With a keen interest in supporting Buffalo's emerging entrepreneurs, Rich's has funded the award for the last several years.
If you are interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities, donating or become a resource to WEDI, please visit: wedibuffalo.org
Photos courtesy of Westminster Economic
Development Initiative (WEDI)