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August 1, 2017

Portland rolls out new business center for immigrant entrepreneurs

Photo / Renee Cordes
Photo / Renee Cordes
U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and Portland City Council member Pious Ali attend the opening of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center on Preble Street.

As of this week, immigrant entrepreneurs in Portland have a modern workspace and business incubator at their disposal downtown.

The nonprofit Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, at 24 Preble St., officially opened its doors on Monday at a packed ribbon-cutting event attended by U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and Portland City Council member Pious Ali, the first African-born Muslim American elected to public office in Maine.

"After three years of hard work, the dream has finally become a reality," said Damas Rugaba, an immigrant from Rwanda who came up with the idea for the center three years ago with Alain Nahimana, who hails from Burundi and serves as the center's interim executive director.

Rugaba said the goal was to create a place where people could collaborate and share resources they would otherwise not be able to afford.

Besides acting as a business hub, the center plans to connect entrepreneurs with mentors and lending institutions to help them finance the path to citizenship, and offer English lessons in a digital language laboratory.

The center is being financed by grants from the Maine Community Foundation through its Broad Reach Fund, more than a dozen corporate sponsors including Coffee By Design and cPort Credit Union, and individual donors (all of whom are listed on the center's website).

Among nonprofits that have taken up residence at the center are Women United Around The World, which recently teamed up with outdoor clothing maker Flowfold to support training of immigrant women, and the New Mainers Tenants' Association.

Cheerful and welcoming

Photo / Renee Cordes
Photo / Renee Cordes
Jen Boggs of Toderico Creative says the logo she designed for the Greater Portland Welcome Center depicts woven textiles as the universal craft and symbolizes strength through cooperation.

The center, which has computer-equipped desks and conference rooms, is cheerful and modern. Its walls are decorated with works by local artists in a show curated by Creative Portland and posters depicting the history of immigrants from various countries to Maine, from Scandinavia to Scotland.

Jen Boggs of the Toderico Creative agency, an immigrant from the Philippines who designed the center's red and blue logo, said she chose a woven textiles motif to represent the universal craft as well as strength through cooperation.

"Diversity of ideas … is what makes a community strong," she told the crowd.

Continuing the same message, King called immigrants "the heart of who we are as a country." He paid homage to the three senators who preceded him, all from immigrant families, and pointed to the latest crop of U.S. Nobel laureates.

"This year, for example, we had seven Nobel Prize winners," he said. "Six were immigrants. The seventh was Bob Dylan, and nobody knows where he's from."

On a more serious note, King underscored that Maine needs people from everywhere — including other countries — to help it cope with a serious demographic problem.

"We need people here in this state," he said. "The wonderful thing is, when we have immigrants coming here, they bring with them ideas and energy and the qualities that we value in this country."

But he also said that every wave of immigrants to America has encountered resistance, urging, "This is something we have to overcome."

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