Donation helps WMU foster entrepreneur success in Kalamazoo community

Contact: Erin Flynn
A woman stands in an aisle in a bookstore holding a book.

Dr. Khady Ndao-Brumblay was tired of the lack of African stories available to her children, so she and her sister are working on creating their own.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.--Scientist. Health advocate. Mother. Dr. Khady Ndao-Brumblay has worn many hats in her adult life. Now, with the help of a program at Western Michigan University, she's hoping to add another title: business owner.

Ndao-Brumblay and her sister, Yacine Ndao, are in the beginning stages of launching an educational endeavor aimed at empowering underrepresented girls and increasing self-representation in literature. Tentatively called "ODoll," their concept involves writing stories about great women in African history and creating dolls to go along with them. The stories would fill the gap in African children's literature Ndao-Brumblay discovered while trying to teach her own children about her culture.

"Where are the stories of strong women who led armies? Where are the stories of queens who led empires?" wondered Ndao-Brumblay, who grew up in Senegal but now lives in Kalamazoo. "What I found as a recent immigrant coming here and having children who are American was that it was absolutely impossible for me to teach them any of that because it was mostly not written. And if it was written, it was in some anthropological books that even I had difficulty understanding."

With a background in science, Ndao-Brumblay wasn't sure how to turn her business idea into a reality. Once she found WMU's Introduction to Customer Discovery program, however, the pieces started falling into place.

Introduction to Customer Discovery

The ICD training program at WMU is a partnership with Michigan Technological University. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the four-week market ecosystem program guides participants who are interested in starting a business through the customer discovery interview process, teaching them how to identify potential customers and develop a product that fits the customers' needs.

"ICD as a program helped me to see things I didn't see before. The interviews allowed me to adjust my original plans," says Ndao-Brumblay, who also benefitted from the network of business professionals the program opened her up to. "It gave me courage and the push I needed to actually get something done and the tools to understand the business mindset."

Initially, WMU's program focused on startups within the University. But, with the help of the Monroe-Brown Foundation, some Kalamazoo community startups who complete the program can receive $2,000 toward developing their business.

The contribution is part of a larger donation from the organization--a $140,000 gift establishing the Monroe-Brown Foundation Entrepreneurship Fund—which aims to foster job-creation and engage Kalamazoo-area entrepreneurs with the growing technology transfer activities at WMU.

The funds will support four projects:

  • Community engagement awards for ICD teams ($2,000 each up to $10,000 for fall of 2019 and spring of 2020)
  • MEDC grant matching program for WMU tech startups ($40,000)
  • Pre-launch pilot funds for WMU tech company development ($75,000)
  • Augmenting the WMU Technology Development Fund to support development of intellectual property created at the University ($15,000)

"The Monroe-Brown Foundation has a proud history of supporting WMU, and these new and expanded programs support our commitment to higher education and growing businesses and talent in Kalamazoo," says A.J. Todd, a member of the Monroe-Brown Foundation's Board of Trustees.

D. Clark Bennett, director of technology and innovation advancement at WMU, touts the economic development benefits of the projects and growing businesses in Kalamazoo.

"It strengthens the community," he says. "Customer discovery is the first step in getting more support for companies in town. Keeping talent in the community is a big deal."

Empowering Girls

Ndao-Brumblay, left, talks with Joanna Parzakonis, co-owner of Bookbug in Kalamazoo. Parzakonis is one of the people she interviewed as part of the ICD program.

While the Ndao sisters' endeavor is a business at its core, their goal is about much more than generating dollars.

"Research now shows that girls who know their family history tend to be more resilient. They tend to have better behavior overall," Ndao-Brumblay says. "They tend to connect more with their families and have better functioning families. They have low anxiety and are better able to face psychological threats."

Through their interviews with the ICD program, the Ndao sisters were able to refine their product concept and determine how to best package the content for their target audiences. Ndao-Brumblay says local librarians and book store owners—like Joanna Parzakonis, co-owner of Bookbug in Kalamazoo—played a large part in helping her refine her business plan

"ICD allowed me to know a lot more about what people want to hear in these stories," says Ndao-Brumblay, who spoke with everyone from children and their parents to teachers, librarians and book sellers. "I asked how they define identity and how they transmit that to their children. I found that people talked about food, clothing, parties, things that when I do create the books and toys they will have to encompass."

The next step for the Ndao sisters is to talk to book publishers and groups that advocate for multicultural books about their experiences. They also plan to start working on marketing materials and working toward a prototype for the first dolls.

"ICD has been a godsend for me because I've been sitting on tons of ideas and didn't know what to do," Ndao-Brumblay says.

The Ndao sisters completed the spring ICD program. Applications are now being accepted for the fall 2019 course. For more information, contact Clark Bennett at (269) 387-8218 or

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.