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2020 Entrepreneurs of the Year

Matt Gill, Enhance VR

Technology Entrepreneur of the Year -
Matt Gill, Enhance VR [Binghamton]

In 2015, Matt Gill began working as a Binghamton University (BU) freshman with a graduate student on a spin-off project for a virtual reality skiing simulator. This entry into the world of virtual reality has since become a passion for Matt. He also worked on virtual reality projects including a race car simulator in a 36-hour hackathon from PVC pipe, duct tape, wood, and bicycle parts. Working with the BU Entrepreneurship Department, Matt’s path led him to funding for prototypes that were the initial foundation of Matt’s new company, EnhanceVR. By 2018, Matt became the sole owner of Enhance-VR, and during customer discovery learned that the business opportunity in virtual reality arcades was weak. He chose to pivot into virtual reality for education but learned that start-up costs for these platforms were too great, He chose to pivot again - to vocational training opportunities. Today, EnhanceVR manufactures workforce training experiences t0 develop internal talent and for recruitment into the trade disciplines. Enhance-VR’s proprietary platform can gather user and performance data to improve performance or evaluate potential candidates while connecting schools and training institutes for recruitment pipelines. In 2020, EnhanceVR is expected to generate at least $100,000 in new contracts for development of virtual reality platforms for both public and private sector enterprises, including workforce development projects. Matt’s leadership has propelled him into new and exciting partnerships with a number of training companies, state and local training facilities and private companies.
[Advisor: Bob Griffin]

Alexis McSween, Bottomline Construction & Development

Female Entrepreneur of the Year -
Alexis McSween, Bottomline Construction & Development [Columbia Harlem]

Established in 2010, Bottom Line Construction & Development is a fully licensed and insured firm with locations in Harlem and Queens. BLCD handles construction projects throughout five boroughs of NYC, working in design, renovations, structural work, carpentry, partitions, plumbing, and electrical work. BLCD maintains professional and long-term relationships in its trade with professional subcontractors. Alexis McSween brought over eighteen years of practical and formal experience to her company. She promotes a company culture based on her own high standards of perseverance, teamwork and a talent for forming successful collaborations. Alexis has a bachelor’s degree in organizational management and a Master of Science in Real Estate Development with a minor in Construction Management from New York University’s Shack Real Estate Institute. Her passion bloomed in 1994, following the complete gut and rehabilitation of a multi-family residence in Queens. While earning her master’s degree, Alexis worked as a project manager for a NYC construction & management firm. BLC&D’s company core values are teamwork, collaboration and great workmanship. Alexis met with advisor Glamis Haro from Columbia-Harlem SBDC, who assisted her with her strategic growth plan in sales, marketing, branding, financial management, profitability, and risk management. Alexis participated in the Columbia Community Business Program (CCBP) and considers herself a traditional entrepreneur committed to growing BLCD every year.
[Advisor: Glamis Haro]

Allison Ulin, Harmony Early Learning

Childcare Entrepreneur of the Year -
Allison Ulin, Harmony Early Learning [Farmingdale]

Allison Ulin started her career in the childcare industry by entertaining at children’s parties, writing children’s music and teaching Music Together classes. She dreamed of one day owning her own childcare center to provide high quality early learning experiences. Allison incorporated Harmony Early Learning in 2012 and opened it in 2013 to provide a place where children can learn, create, and explore the world around them. She wanted to give parents assurance that their children are being cared for in a safe and fun environment. In the first year Harmony served 5 children and offered a separate summer program for several additional children. Currently, Harmony has 4 fully enrolled classes including an infant room. Harmony serves 48 students and has a wait list of 80. Over the last three years Allison realized she needed to expand. She purchased a property two miles from her first center to meet the growing needs of working families. She has broken ground and plans to open her doors to 80 children on the waiting list plus an additional 36 in the spring of 2021. Allison was approved for an SBA loan in the amount of $4.7 million for the new project. When the new childcare program is open, she will employ approximately 35 teachers and teachers’ aides. Harmony Early Learning has a top rating of 4 stars through Quality Stars of NY.
[Advisor: Erica Chase]

Rich Rattan, Safe Health Educators

Veteran Entrepreneur of the Year -
Rich Rattan, Safe Health Educators [Farmingdale]

When Richard Rattan was a young boy in Trinidad, he dreamed about being a firefighter. After he and his family emigrated to the United States in the 1970’s, he served in the U.S. Air Force. After leaving military service, he became an ER nurse and volunteered in two local fire departments on Long Island. A few years later, as a Fire Captain for the United Nations, he trained firefighters in Bosnia and Kososvo. In 2006, while working full-time as a paramedic for Northwell, he launched Safe Health Educators, and within a year had moved the business out of his home. Today, the business operates in a free-standing 3,500-sf training facility financed through a $640,000 SBA loan. “Everybody thought I was crazy to leave my job and start this business because we were in a recession,” said Rattan. “But I was so busy that opening a dedicated training center just made sense.” Advisor Troy Diaz helped him create financial projections that enabled Rattan to get loan approval. Safe Health’s services are geared primarily toward healthcare professionals who need to maintain their required certifications. As an American Heart Association-approved center, his offerings include Basic Cardiac Life Support, Advanced Cardiac Life Support, Pediatric Advanced Life Support and a host of other technical trainings. The new location doubles the course capacity and positions Safe Health Educators as a leader in the area’s healthcare training sector.
[Advisor: Troy Diaz]

Lenin Costa, Don Ceviche

Restaurant Entrepreneur of the Year -
Lenin Costa, Don Ceviche [LaGuardia]

Lenin Costa was born in Lima, Peru and since age 8 developed a passionate love for his grandmother’s food while helping her in the kitchen. Many years later, Mr. Costa saw market opportunity in New York City for Latin American meals and decided to start the project in honor of his grandmother. Mr. Costa opened his first pop-up site in April 2017 at the LIC FLEA Market in Long Island City. The SBDC assisted him with business planning, logo creation, website development, marketing strategies and potential locations. He began to see success based on the originality, live presentation and the preparation of his dishes. The customers appreciated this combination of flavors of the traditional Peruvian ceviche. Don Ceviche’ mission is to provide customers with outstanding Peruvian cuisine dishes focusing varied traditional ceviche. Since May 2019, Don Ceviche has had a permanent food stand in the new Essex Market facilities in lower Manhattan. Don Ceviche recently expanded his presence into a full-service restaurant. Advisor Lizbeth Rodriguez assisted Mr. Costa with food stand design, preparing financial projections, and referral for pro-bono legal service for the lease and other issues. Mr. Costa was honored to host Congresswomen Nydia Velazquez in 2019, who wanted to meet The Chef and sample his special Peruvian Ceviche meals.
[Advisor: Lizbeth Rodriguez]

Mike Offner, Pine Ridge Dude Ranch

Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year -
Mike Offner, Pine Ridge Dude Ranch [Mid-Hudson]

The former Pine Grove Ranch in Kerhonkson was in steady decline for many years. With the untimely death of its long-time owner, it seemed that the writing was on the wall for this all-inclusive ranch-style family resort. Mike Offner (the former barn manager) and his partners Mike Bernholz and Ryan Bernholz totally renovated the resuscitated 150-acre property to its former glory and re-christened it the Pine Ridge Dude Ranch. With the help of Mid-Hudson SBDC Advisor Sam Kandel, they successfully raised over $2 million. In 60 days, with a huge push from former employees and the community, they completed the initial round of renovations and re-opened for business. The resort restored the jobs of 80 former employees (now 120) and provided work for many local construction and tradespeople. One of the most compelling parts of the story was Mike Offner’s successful effort to keep 34 of the resort’s horses off the auction block. Since re-opening, the resort has been named a “Top 10 All-Inclusive Family Destination by Family Vacation Critic,” a designation that puts the ranch in the same category as Disney World. Plans are to continue to renovate and to expand the wedding and event spaces, and indoor activity options.
[Advisor: Sam Kandel]
Justin & Beth Miller, Universal Bookkeeper

Growth Entrepreneur of the Year -
Justin & Beth Miller, Universal Bookkeeper [Mohawk Valley]

Universal Bookkeeper is a full-service remote accounting and tax preparation service located in Utica. Justin and his wife Beth started the company in 2015 to create a better work environment for themselves and a better experience for clients. Justin does tax preparation and works as a remote CFO for select clients while Beth manages the office and staff. The company handles all payroll, Accounts Receivable, Accountants Payable and all back-office accounting needs for its clients. Justin and Beth consulted the SBDC in 2018 to address several concerns with their young business - generating more income, increasing the number of clients, and dealing with a long-term strategy and growth plan. They also wanted to review their business model, which utilized many outside contractors. Advisor Arvantides reviewed their financials to target areas for improvement. The Research Network provided the clients with data on industry rates and potential clients. Advisor Arvantides and the Millers reviewed strategies for dealing with employees and transitioning from the use of contractors. After many months of hard work, Justin and Beth are moving forward. They found new office space and developed long term growth strategies. The changes made over the past year have produced great results. Client total has increased 38% over the last year.
[Advisor: Paul Arvantides]
Harold & Nicole Verde, Expedia CruiseShipCenters

Family-Owned Entrepreneur of the Year -
Harold & Nicole Verde, Expedia CruiseShipCenters [Staten Island]

Harold Verde established Expedia CruiseShipCenters of Staten Island in August 2015 with his daughter Nicole to follow their lifelong desire for cruise travel. The Verde family formed strong bonds on vacation and took an extra step toward bonding together in a business with a vacation atmosphere. The business has grown as they monitored the travel industry on Staten Island and became active members of the Staten Island business community. Harold and Nicole wanted to create a more personal customer service experience to help customers book their travel arrangements good deals. The Staten Island SBDC helped Harold and Nicole with their business plan and with their marketing and sales endeavors as the business grew. Advisor Joe Muller also engaged the Research Network to compile marketing research information and statistics on the travel industry and a competitive analysis of local travel agency services. Harold regularly attends training and networking events in the community to learn and grow his business. In March 2016, Harold hosted College of Staten Island President William Fritz during a South Shore / Feet on the Street Initiative Tour stop. In March 2019 Expedia hosted the SBDC Day celebration, inviting small business community members to network and learn together. As they approach their 6th year anniversary on Staten Island, Expedia has 44 employees.
[Advisor: Joe Muller]