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September 4, 2017
On the record

Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center helps 'new Americans' start their businesses

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Alain Nahimana, interim executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, talks with Antoni Bazia of Project Bazia, which brings African youth together through education and uses office space at the center.

Alain Nahimana, a Burundi native who studied economics and speaks six languages, knows what it's like to arrive in this country and start over without a support network. As interim executive director of the new Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center business hub and incubator, he aims to help new Mainers find the resources needed to start a business.

The center opened on July 31 at 24 Preble St., three years after Nahimana and Damas Rugaba, an immigrant from Rwanda, brainstormed the idea. It's a bright cheery space with works by local artists and posters depicting the history of Maine's immigrants.

Mainebiz: What did you do before the welcome center?

Alain Nahimana: After getting my work permit, I got my first job at a call center, but quit because people were not nice to me and got a job as a driver for a courier company. Then in 2013, I got a job with the Maine Immigrants' Rights Coalition, where my first assignment was to go to a conference in D.C. about immigration reform at the federal level and my second assignment was to organize a rally in Portland. I quit last November and started working on this project on a daily basis in January.

MB: A project that was three years in the making?

AN: This was a dream of mine for a long time. If I as a newcomer hadn't had anyone to guide me, telling me where to go, how to do things, I wouldn't have made it. People in the immigrant community were deprived of that support, and fundraising for any one community was difficult, so why not pool resources and build something we can share and be empowered from?

MB: What are the biggest hurdles for new Mainers who want to start a business?

AN: No. 1, people don't have access to information on how to do business, and No. 2, they don't have access to capital. Language barriers and integration into the mindset of the U.S. marketplace are also challenges.

MB: What's the first advice you give to an aspiring entrepreneur?

AN: The first advice is about where to get accurate information. The center is here, we can give you information, we can connect you to people. I also tell them that the best attitude to have is to dream and to be bold. I encourage people to think big and be willing to try things, and then let's get connected with other people to share ideas and act as mentors.

MB: How can you help with access to capital?

AN: We're having a lot of conversations around that with lending institutions who will be willing to do some underwriting for equity loans as well as providing micro-financing and allowing people without experience in business to have access to some level of capital.

MB: Who uses the center so far?

AN: So far, we have a photographer, a tax preparer and an interpreter. We also have someone who wants to start a transportation business and another who wants to start a catering business — people who don't necessarily work from here, but are incubating their business from here.

MB: And what does that entail?

AN: We connect them with people to help them move their business plan idea along, and then learn from them and see what other resources they need. Down the road we will connect them with a mentor to see how they're navigating their business and give them the support they need to thrive — not only to start a business, but to succeed and grow their business.

MB: Long term, do you see other cities in Maine opening centers like this?

AN: Absolutely. For me it's all about how we shift from the defensive on immigration issues and focus on building our story, building our narrative and creating opportunities. It's fine to hold vigils and rallies, but down the road, it's about having successful black people and successful white people. Let's not only have a shared physical nation, let's share the prosperity.

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