Refugee program helps aspiring entrepreneurs develop business plans | Local News

MANKATO — Budding entrepreneurs from Mankato’s refugee community celebrated their new ventures this week with the business leaders who gave them guidance along the way.

The groups came together as part of the Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services’ Tapestry Project entrepreneur series. They met monthly starting in summer 2021 to discuss business startups, with business leaders serving as mentors and guides.

Business ideas ranged from wedding decorating to an online boutique to child care. Some are already off the ground.

Habiba Rashid told the group the guidance she received in the series helped her launch Habiba Boutique online, an idea she had in mind since 2017.

“I am who I am today because of this program,” she said during a virtual graduation event Tuesday. “I’m truly grateful, and I’m now an entrepreneur.”

Rashid, associate director with refugee services, credited local businessman Bob Coughlan for helping her get started. Coughlan, principal and board member for Capstone publishing, was one of 10 “business connectors” helping 10 “entrepreneur explorers” during the series.

He said he loved Habiba’s approach to her business. She developed a visual business plan in recent months, laying out goals, challenges and potential customers.

“She’s clear in who her customer is,” Coughlan said. “You can fail without that clarity.”

Ruth Aganya, another entrepreneur, said navigating through all the taxes and paperwork needed to start a business was daunting before the program.

She now has a braiding salon in Old Town and a wedding decorating business in the works.

“When I open a business now, I know what to do first and next and how to do it,” she said.

Nancy Goodwin, a business consultant with the Small Business Development Center, planned to meet up with Aganya soon to scout out locations for a new business.

“You have so many choices, so many options,” she told her. “I look forward to us getting together next week and maybe drive around town looking for places.”

The development center partnered with refugee services on the program. Outsource Training Providers, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Greater Mankato Growth and Mankato YWCA also partnered with them, with it partly funded by the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.

The program was about connecting business owners with explorers interested in starting businesses, said Sophia Hoiseth, community engagement specialist at refugee services. The aspiring business owners from the refugee community got to learn how longtime business owners worked through early struggles, got suggestions on how to overcome those struggles, and can keep in touch as their dreams come together.

With many of the explorers being working parents already, it helps to have that support, Hoiseth said.

“To have someone in your corner who’s pushing you to have deadlines and see things through, that’s huge help,” she said.

The Tapestry Project served mainly new refugee arrivals to Mankato before the COVID-19 pandemic. New arrivals slowed during it, leading refugee services to work with its partners to develop the entrepreneur series.

“As there weren’t a ton of brand new arrivals during the pandemic, we wanted to help listen to the needs of refugees who’ve been here for longer,” Hoiseth said.

Ever since coming to the U.S. from Somalia as a refugee, Ahmed Mohamud said he had in his mind that having your own business means you’re close to success. Although you’re busy and working hard, it means you’re independent at the same time.

Back home, he said starting a business didn’t require business plans. If you have something to sell, you set up shop and sell it.

Going through the series showed him how important it is to have a business plan. It’s crucial, he said, and hearing the stories from business leaders gave him and the others passion to develop their own plans.

“We have the ideas and passion in our hearts,” he said. “But to start, and the process we take, we didn’t know. We learned that here.”

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