Marisa Nuñez, Marisa Hair, Long Island City, NY

Nnennaya Onyejuruwa

Ashione Gallery

New York, New York

It’s a story that any New Yorker is familiar with. Nnennaya started an art gallery retail business in 1992. A native Nigerian, she was determined to foster the same appreciation for her culture’s art and history in the big city. With her big smile, warm nature and flair for storytelling, she was extremely successful. Her clientele began to amass celebrities such as Robin Williams, Iman Bowie and Sarah Jessica Parker. In fact, her store landed on an episode of Sex and the City. But, as any New Yorker will tell you, rising rent prices continue to drive out the gems that made the city great.

That’s where Nnennaya’s spirit of adaptability and her determination comes into play. It’s not the first time it’s been tested. Nnennaya moved to New York over 40 years ago. After receiving her Masters at Columbia University, she began working in early childhood education. Nnennaya worked with children whose families were going through the legal system, suffering from abuse and neglect. She ran the system in the 80’s for six years, winning the respect of the community and local governments. In fact, the Roxbury District Court in Boston asked her to help open a similar service.

Nnennaya proudly claims as a legacy the fact that she was able to institute the first three Court based Children Centers in the Boroughs of New York, services still being enjoyed by distressed families to this day. –Sideways, June 2013

Yet, Nnennaya was also in the midst of raising her own kids who she was concerned about straddling two different cultures. She began collecting art upon her trips to Africa, amassing a collection of stories and knowledge of art history that has fallen victim to Euro-centric retelling, or worse, omission. Her knowledge, as well as her collection, gained in popularity and encouraged her to open Ashione Gallery. She settled on a storefront in the West Village, where she fascinated tourists and residents alike with her unique collection and stories.

Then the recession hit. After seventeen years, Nnennaya decided to close the storefront and settle on a cheaper location at the Chelsea Flea Market. Yet, when the rent was raised, she needed money to invest back into purchasing inventory for the business. Nnennaya had watched many of her friends borrow a lot of money and later file for bankruptcy. She never did that. She had never been in debt, but she had also not built a credit history as she hadn’t been using credit cards. Her friend told her about Ascendus and their loan programs for small businesses. She worked with an Ascendus loan consultant on an application for financing and received a $10,000 loan to invest in inventory.

As for the future, Nnennaya has yet again had to adapt. Another hike in rent has prompted her to leave the Chelsea Market. She’s now revamping Ashione Gallery’s digital presence to increase her sales and give her the income to invest in a new storefront. She has participated in Kate Spade and Ascendus’ Women Entrepreneur Meetup Series, where she was able to talk about e-commerce best practices with Kate Spade’s marketing team.

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