By Paul Tennant
---- — 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.
More than 100 business owners and other professionals act as mentors to those who also want to start a company of their own, Parker explained. The tuition? Zero. The Deshpande Foundation covers the entire cost, Parker said.
“They have to make a commitment to drive to Lowell or Lawrence twice a week,” he said. Students learn about bookkeeping, marketing and other skills essential to running a business.
One of last night’s graduates who solved a problem is Cheryl Hajjar of Haverhill. A mother who is well aware of the difficulties young children often have with toilet training, holding on to a pacifier and making the transition from crib to bed, she invented the Indigo Pixies.
The Pixies are a family of “magical, multicultural fairies” that help children achieve these milestones, she said. Hajjar self-published a book, “The Paci Pixie,” that tells how a pixie helps children let go of their pacifiers.
Hajjar received a grant of $4,000 and she said she expects to start making the Indigo Pixie dolls that will help young children in their development. Thirty-thousand dollars in grants were distributed last night.
“We all won,” said Jer-emy Shannon, founder of FEMG Productions, a multimedia production company. He noted that an anonymous donor who attended last night’s celebration gave $10,000 to be evenly divided among the graduates.
Parker noted that such contributions, made to Merrimack Valley Sandbox, are tax deductible. For more information, visit MVSandbox.org. By the way, the program is called sandbox because that is where many people begin to demonstrate their creativity, Deshpande explained.
Mayor Daniel Rivera, who addressed the graduates, their families and their mentors, said his administration will do all that it can to help entrepreneurs.
“We need more of them,” he later told The Eagle-Tribune.