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Upstate Minority Economic Alliance

Never judge a book by its cover. That’s just one lesson Rickey Brown has learned over time, especially as it pertains to his friend, NaDonte Jones.

Jones reflects on the challenging path that led him to where he is now as the owner of NJ Jones Plumbing, LLC. More than 20 years ago, a parole violation landed him in the Jamesville Correctional Facility — an experience that inspired him to rethink his choices.

“I would definitely consider that experience a turning point in my life,” said Jones. “I knew I needed a change.”

It was during his incarceration that he gained the opportunity to earn his GED. He took a building trade maintenance class with BOCES and started a career in plumbing upon his release.

As the first and only African-American master plumber in Syracuse, Jones was already making history. Now, he is helping pave the way for others by hosting a New York State Department of Labor certified apprentice program. His apprentices become certified plumbers in New York, adding to the diversity of the tradespeople in our community.

Jones credits his relationship with Brown, executive director of the Upstate Minority Economic Alliance (UMEA), with helping him launch his business and establish his apprenticeship program.

UMEA is a minority chamber of commerce established in 2015 and formed in partnership with CenterState CEO. It is the first of its kind in Central New York history and represents businesses in 16 counties. It is growing fast, gaining 135 new members in just the past year. Its mission is to harness the economic power of its members by serving as a clearinghouse of information and networking for the region’s minority-owned businesses and minority professionals.

“UMEA advocates to get us the work that we need to prosper and helps make us aware of our rights and opportunities as minority business enterprises,” said Jones.

The Community Foundation awarded two grants to help this start-up grow over time.

“The impact of the Community Foundation’s grants is almost incalculable,” said Brown. “It has allowed us to pursue, with vigor, several fiscal goals for our clients, including securing funding from the regional economic development council and expanding opportunities for our mid-sized firms.”

Jones’ success is a reminder that with the proper support, the future can be bright for minority business owners.

“Business can be scary,” said Jones. “It helps to have someone to say, ‘Go ahead, jump in. No, I’m not going to catch you; I’m going to jump with you.’”