Marisa Nuñez, Marisa Hair, Long Island City, NY

Azra Khalfan-Kermali

Plaques By Azra & Away in a Box

Queens, NY

“With Ascendus, I was introduced to people and organizations that helped me and my small business grow and arrive to where we are today.”

Creating a DEI Experience That Works

Azra’s small business journey started a few years after she was born. Her parents immigrated from Tanzania to Queens, NY to build a better life for their family. They launched Plaques by Azra and engrained in her the spirit of entrepreneurship. Azra would visit her family’s store after school and pay close attention to the inner workings of how to run a small business. “I was going to college for business, but I realized that I was learning so much more from my family’s store.” While Azra was in college her dad was in desperate need for an engraver, but he had no luck in finding one. “I felt so bad for my father, I said show me and I will help. I was surprised at how quickly I grasped it.” Azra ended up dropping out of college because the work got so bus and she considered it a priority. “I was so excited the first time they left the country to travel during peak season.  My younger sister and I were spending hours at the office processing orders and feeling super responsible.”


In 2012 Hurricane Sandy hit, and Azra’s store was severely affected. She reached out to Ascendus and took out a microloan to buy a new engraving machine. “I discovered something unique that no other plaque store I knew about had, it changed the way plaques were made in an unbelievably fast and efficient way. With traditional machines it would take a few hours to make one plaque. With this new machine, it would take less than an hour to make a few plaques.” With the new machine, Azra was able to increase the number of orders she could take by tenfold. Her business skyrocketed. “I can’t even begin to tell you what an impact that loan had on my small business.”


Azra’s store flourished for many years, but in 2020 the pandemic hit and caused a halt. “No one wanted awards. No one was celebrating.” Azra struggled to find new customers; she was at a loss. She started to focus on what she could do. She began learning more about societal injustices and unconscious biases, she wished to find a way to systematically shatter stereotypes. Something clicked, and Azra decided that she wanted to combine her love of business with her desire to change society for the better. She started a new division of her small business called “Away in a Box” that focuses on cultural intelligence through leadership training for employee engagement, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Away in a Box immerses audiences in a sensory way to educate users using the five senses. “For example, say a company wants to explore the culture of India. They would be immersed in tasting chai, having a passport folder made from burlap so they can feel the textiles, hear the traditional music of India, have diverse types of goodies in the box, and have someone from India come to show them basic cultural norms along with the sights of India.”

Companies can choose their country from a growing list that Azra has curated, and scale it according to their wants, needs, and budget. “When people are aware of other people’s cultures, they are more compassionate and accepting because they understand them better.” Azra makes it a priority to buy all her products from local, small women and minority owned businesses that specialize in products from their cultures. “My parents exposed me to many cultures at a very young age, and this taught me to be compassionate and accepting.” In the future, Azra hopes to continue to expand “Away in a Box” while still focusing on her boutique plaque business.

“If I had taken a loan from a credit card, I would never have gotten to where I am today. With Ascendus, I was introduced to people and organizations that helped me and my small business grow and arrive to where we are today. Prior to the loan, I had nothing on record in terms of awards or articles. Ascendus gave me a platform. Their belief made a difference to me.”

To learn more about Plaques by Azra and Away in a Box, visit:

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