Boyd Huppert, KARE 11:01 p.m. EDT April 27, 2014
ST. PAUL, Minn. – Sarah Lee pastries, Kraft cheese and Oscar Mayer wieners — each are grocery brands founded by immigrants.
Not unlike St. Paul’s newest grocery store and its 28-year-old owner, Mubarek Lolo, who accepted hugs and pats on the back as he opened Awash Market at 590 University Avenue.
“I’m so happy,” he said, flashing a wide smile inside the store he named for a river back home in Ethiopia.
But Lolo’s small business story actually began months earlier in a classroom in Minneapolis, with Lolo and other immigrants from Ethiopia’s Oromo region sitting around a large table.
Other classes are held for Mexicans, Somalis and Hmong. All the participants have one thing in common with the Germans, Norwegians and Swedes who preceded them — a dream of opening a business.
For Merga Woticha, the dream is opening a barber shop. Kidist Gemta hopes to launch a home health care agency. Merga Boonaa and Meskia Sherif both aspire to own a taxi businesses.
“I’m excited to open the business,” says Lolo to his teacher and classmates. His optimism is shared by others in the class.
Teshite Wako has been seeing the passion in his students for years.
“They want to make something happen,” says the longtime instructor and CFO of the Neighborhood Development Center, which arranges the entrepreneur classes.
For many it’s a desire to claim what America promises. No matter where they come from, those willing to work hard can succeed.
Manny Gonzalez, a Mexican immigrant, took the entrepreneur classes 16 years ago. Not long after he opened the first of his two Manny’s Tortas restaurants.
“They took me literally by the hand and showed me how to open the business,” he says.
Haigen and Neeson Vang were in debt and jobless when Haigen took the classes. The husband and wife team now own a chain of six Twin Cities clothing stores, operating under the name $10 Rack.
“We’re looking to be national. We want to be a national brand,” Heigan Vang says.
Immigrants, in many ways, are born entrepreneurs, having already overcome their greatest challenge — getting here.
“I want to decide my own destiny,” says Lolo, as he stocks the shelves in his market. “I think that’s where it comes from.”
Like the European immigrants who settled Minnesota, Lolo will gear his business, first, to his own Oromo community.
He prays in his Mosque, then steps outside to pass out flyers for his store. He points across the parking lot, where his new store stands a few hundred feet away. That he chose to lease that space is no accident.
“It’s all about location,” he says.
Those he prayed with minutes earlier are “our potential customers.”
Navigating through permits, inspections, financing and leasing, it’s taken Lolo nine months to punch his ticket as a business owner.
Along the way he carved out spaces along one side of his store for several other entrepreneurs to set up shop, among them India Abdulkdir.
“It’s my first business,” says Abdulkdir, who quit her food service job at the airport to open IZ Dubai Fashion Shop, an Oromo women’s clothing store.
“This is my dream,” she says on her first day in business.
Mike Temali started the entrepreneur classes shortly after founding the Neighborhood Development Center two decades ago.
He says immigrants starting small businesses does not just represent America.
“It’s utterly necessary. We need these folks for our regional economy and for our state economy to be producers,” Temali explained.
AT&T, Yahoo and Google were also founded by immigrants, as were 18 percent of Fortune 500 Companies, according to a 2011 study conducted by The Partnership for a New American Economy.
Mubarek Lolo and his market are still a long way from the Fortune 500. But when it comes to good fortune, Lolo has earned his.
“It’s mine,” he says, surveying his store. “It’s a good feeling.”
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