Diverse businesses flourishing | Local News

Cuong Huynh came to the United States from Vietnam four decades ago as a young child, growing up in the Seattle area and adapting to a new culture.

But Huynh, better known to his patients and friends as “Dr. C,” said moving to Mankato 14 years ago to start Discover Chiropractic was also a big culture shock.

“Moving here was a big transition culturally. Mankato isn’t a big city, compared to where I grew up. I felt like I was in a foreign country here.”

After he and his wife and fellow chiropractor, Deb Bobendrier, arrived in Mankato and began building their business from scratch, Huynh said he had to reach deep to meet new people and build a social and business network.

“I’m introverted, and a lot of people don’t know that English is my second language. Coming from a different culture, it was tough getting started. But we made good friends and had a good support system.”

Today the couple has a thriving practice and an ever-expanding social and professional network.

Habiba Ahmed didn’t have the advantage of coming to the United States as a kid and slowly learning the language and cultural traditions.

Ahmed first arrived in the United States after her family fled to Kenya from war-torn Somalia. She seized on the opportunity to move to Minnesota in 2004 but had to leave her family behind. She arrived in Mankato without speaking a word of English.

“I left my two children and my husband in Africa. It’s a sad story. When I came here, after three weeks I was sick. My friend took me to the hospital. They told me I was pregnant.” The announcement left her shocked and scared.

But after years of learning English and getting the rest of her family to America, Ahmed in 2017 launched a small shop called Africa Fashions on Park Lane in Mankato, later moving the store to River Hills Mall.

Early convert

Huynh’s decision to become a chiropractor grew out of the debilitating pain he suffered as a youth.

“I was in a car accident when I was young, and they didn’t think it was anything. But I had to quit sports in high school. For a good six or seven years of my life I couldn’t do anything, and then I met a chiropractor who helped me.”

After diagnosing Huynh with whiplash from the long-ago accident, the chiropractor was able to restore his health.

“A lot of chiropractors have become chiropractors because they got help for pain along the way from one.”

He went to college in Seattle and California and met his wife, who is from Pipestone, while in grad school.

After they got some experience working for others, the couple decided to open their own practice.

“We thought we were ready to head out on our own, but it was definitely a scary thing,” Huynh said.

“College teaches you how to be a doctor, but not a business person.”

After moving to Bobendrier’s home state, Huynh realized they would need to do a lot to gain a footing.

“I didn’t know a single person when we moved to Mankato. You can’t just put your name on a big billboard and expect people to come. We made good contacts, starting with the SBDC (Small Business Development Center) and GMG (Greater Mankato Growth) and we kept meeting people and building a network.”

Along the way Huynh had to also deal with racism.

“I’ve dealt with overtly and subtle racism all my life. Mankato is no exception. Every room I walk into I’m usually the only person of color in that room,” he said.

“In the past 14 years it’s improved some, but it’s still here.”

Huynh said the increased discussion of diversity and inclusion happening in recent years is a positive.

“We all want better for each other, but it seems like an uncomfortable conversation a lot of times. But I think people want better for themselves and others and the community in general.”

He said they feel fortunate their business has grown and prospered steadily over the years, even though they’ve had setbacks, including when the Great Recession hit in 2009 and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The last couple of years have been tough. We had a lot of restrictions at first but we have developed a good customer base, so we did OK during the first shutdown. But the second shutdown really hurt. We had more patients canceling because they had COVID or were wary of coming in.”

His advice to other entrepreneurs is to work diligently to build relationships.

“In a community like this there is a small-town feel and there are a lot of people who want to support your business, and you have to go out there and meet them.

“You have to work on communication skills, especially if you come from a different culture.”

Africa Fashions

Like Huynh, Ahmed arrived in Mankato in 2005.

“I didn’t know anyone. I had one friend in Waseca. I had a 9-month old daughter. I didn’t speak any English.”

Her friend helped her often, watching her daughter while Ahmed worked, learned English and earned her GED. Her friend wanted her to move to Waseca, but Ahmed had a sense of providence about Mankato.

“I don’t know why, but I thought maybe God had something for me in Mankato. I had to follow my heart. I needed to stay in Mankato.”

She always had a dream of opening her own business, and while Mankato had African groceries, it didn’t have a clothing and fashion store, prompting her to open her shop in 2017.

It’s not just clothing for sale at Africa Fashions; rugs, dishes, ornaments, perfume and makeup are all available, too. Everything in the store is shipped in from Africa, Dubai, Chicago and Minneapolis.

She was struggling in the out-of-the-way Park Lane shop but remained persistent about running her own business. One day a woman she’d never met told her the store would be a hit at River Hills Mall.

“The mall worked with me and asked how much my rent was and said they wanted to work with me and see me succeed, so that’s how it happened.”

While her new store was indeed a hit, the pandemic hit hard.

“It’s much better now than it was in 2020 and 2021. It’s not the same as the first years I was open, but it’s paying the rent. I’m glad we stayed open because this is my dream. If I wasn’t in the mall, I think I would have had to close (during the pandemic).”

Like most all businesses, she is waiting longer for inventory and paying higher prices for it. “It’s a struggle. Everything is going up. But I don’t raise my prices (too much). If someone in Minneapolis is selling it for $20, I have to sell it for $20.”

Unlike many entrepreneurs, Ahmed launched her business all alone. “I just opened it. I didn’t know the Small Business Development Center existed. I didn’t know anyone,” she said.

“I love Mankato. So many people have helped me. Every job I had, they helped me.”

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