Plaques by Azra branches out to build cultural understanding with Away In A Box

Plaques by Azra, a Queens-based manufacturer and distributor of awards, was started over 50 years ago by Azra Khalfan-Kermali’s parents, AunAli & Shirin Khalfan, who immigrated from Tanzania. The couple ran the business, raised three children, and became highly involved in serving their local community. In 1997, Azra, the company’s namesake, joined the team. She now runs the bustling Plaques by Azra, building on the belief that awards and premium incentives are key to expressing appreciation for employees, donors, scholars, and customers.

When COVID-19 hit New York City hard in 2020, Plaques by Azra, like many businesses, faced extremely low demand. Azra sought assistance from Renaissance and was the recipient of a COVID recovery loan as well as a grant available to Queens-based businesses struggling to survive the pandemic. Recognizing that there is more to recovery than capital, Azra also enrolled in Renaissance’s Local Business Digital Transformation Program, designed to help businesses establish or strengthen their online presence, increase digital sales, and employ technological tools to streamline operations and enhance the customer experience. Azra received support on search engine optimization and has seen a growing number of Google reviews help change the game in a very positive direction for her business. She has become something of an ambassador on the importance of an online presence – Azra shares what she has learned with other business owners she meets.

Shifts in Azra’s business trajectory due to the pandemic took on a much more personal note as well – observing the effects of the pandemic on her friends, family, and local community, Azra recognized the need for bridging a gap in cultural understanding. She developed the idea for a new company, Away In A Box, a way to experience the world and ‘think inside the box.’ Working with employers and employees, Azra and her team of cultural intelligence facilitators deliver workshops built around exploring a collection of sensory gifts from a specific destination while discussing history, geography, culture, and economy to build understanding. Azra has big goals for the company and is committed to building it into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, expanding out from working with other companies to engaging the education system and others.

When speaking about Renaissance, Azra shares that she is “happy at the way that Renaissance has embraced me.” She also highlights that an organization like Renaissance provides far more assistance for small business owners than what an entrepreneur can expect to receive from a traditional lender. Renaissance is honored to work with clients like Azra, who are not only making an impact in the New York City small business landscape by running successful businesses but by also seeking ways to improve cultural relations and positively impact their communities.

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