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March 7, 2014

14 Merrimack Valley entrepreneurs feted

LAWRENCE — Five years ago, Danaris Mazara was living in poverty. She was pregnant and her husband, Andres, had just been laid off from his job. Her paycheck from her job at Walmart was not enough to pay the bills, she said.

Her mother gave her a $35 food stamp card. It was not enough to buy food for her family, but it was sufficient to purchase the ingredients to make vanilla custard. Mazara sold the custard to fellow workers , and the demand began to grow.

Today, Mazara is the owner of her own business in Lawrence, Sweet Grace Heavenly Cakes. She quit her job at Walmart, she said, because her own company got so busy.

Mazara is among the 14 most recent graduates of the Merrimack Valley Sandbox Accelerator program, an initiative of the Deshpande Foundation that provides training to budding entrepreneurs. Mazara received a $3,000 grant that she will invest in her company.

The Deshpande Foundation was founded by Desh Deshpande, a highly successful entrepreneur who has founded several high technology companies, including Sycamore and Cascade.

“I’m a tekkie,” said Deshpande, an engineer who immigrated to the United States from India. Many people assume that the person who starts his or her own business must be brilliant.

Not so, Deshpande said.

“Everybody can be an entrepreneur. You don’t have to be a genius,” he said. Most people who start a business, he said, have a goal of solving a particular problem.

“Every problem is an opportunity,” he said. “Instead of crying about it, you do something about it.”

The 14 finalists honored last night, as well as the mentors who helped them with their business plans, are job makers, he said.

Merrimack Valley Sandbox, based in Lawrence and Lowell, does more than give out grants such as the one Mazara received. The program offers training sessions of two to three hours per night, twice a week, for 12 weeks, according to David Parker, executive director of Merrimack Valley Sandbox.

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