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June 11, 2018 Focus: Small business

Maine's immigrant entrepreneurs making their mark as they launch, and grow, small businesses

Photo / Jim Neuger In South Portland, Rwanda Bean Co. co-founder Mike Mwenedata sources beans from his East African homeland. The start-up returns half of what it earns to farmers.
Photo / Jim Neuger Quang Nguyen left Vietnam for America in 2007. Today, at 28, he owns two nail salons, Le Variety convenience store in South Portland, a financial advisory firm and a seafood business.

At Cafe Whoopies in South Portland, Rwanda Bean Co. co-founder Mike Mwenedata is all smiles, welcoming customers breakfasting on made-in-Maine whoopie pies and coffee brewed from African beans.

Rwanda Bean sources its beans from Mwenedata's East African homeland and returns half of what it earns to farmers, and has a roasting agreement with Arabica, which was its first wholesale customer.

Mwenedata, 32, spent years in refugee camps before immigrating to the United States in 2009. He came up with the idea for the mission-driven start-up while studying business at the University of Southern Maine. Inspiration struck at a Congress Street coffee shop, where he observed people spending $5 to caffeinate, knowing that same amount would feed a family for a day back home.

“That's when I thought, why don't I create something that would build a bridge from the farmer to the consumer?” says Mwenedata, who teamed up with Nick Mazuroski to launch a coffee wholesale business in 2014. They share the South Portland retail space with Cape Whoopies, founded by Marcia Wiggins in her Cape Elizabeth home in early 2013.

“It's been a journey, and really great to see it coming together,” says Mwenedata, a survivor of the 1994 genocide that killed his parents and five siblings. Like many immigrants who leave everything behind for a better life, he embodies the passion that drives so many to start a business on American soil.

First-generation immigrants create about 25% of new U.S. firms, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass.

In Maine, where immigrants make up only 3% of the population, they own small businesses that generate $48 million in annual revenue, according to a 2017 report by the American Immigration Council. Other studies show that immigrants are also more likely to become entrepreneurs than native-born citizens.

Getting to the right Portland

Photo / Jim Neuger
Rwanda Bean shares its South Portland retail space with Cape Whoopies, founded by Marcia Wiggins in 2013.

When Quang Nguyen left Vietnam for America in 2007, he mistakenly flew to the Portland in Oregon rather than the one in Maine. He eventually got here and earned a degree from Southern Maine Community College.

Today, at 28, he owns nail salons in Windham and Cape Elizabeth, Le Variety convenience store in South Portland, a financial advisory firm and a seafood business he just bought for his dad and cousin.

Except for Win Financial Strategies, which he runs as a one-man operation, all are operated by family members and employ up to 18 people combined.

“If I see an opportunity for a family member or friend, I will talk to them and see if they're interested,” he says. “If they say yes, why not help somebody advance their American dream?”

He bought the seafood business by seizing an unexpected possibility, stopping by the long-established Fishermen's Net on Forest Avenue and asking the owner if she'd ever consider selling.

She initially said no but changed her mind a week later and sold in late April. A grand opening is planned around Father's Day, and the long-term plan is to raise and export lobster, starting with Vietnam. Nguyen is also working with Avesta Housing to secure funding for 64 affordable housing units next to Le Variety.

To other immigrants interested in starting a business, Quang offers this advice: “If you need help, don't be afraid to ask.”

From jewelry to industrial design

Ebenezer Akakpo from Ghana was also nearly a victim of geographic confusion when he was initially booked on a flight to Portland, Ore. He came to Portland, Maine, in 1998 to study jewelry making at Maine College of Art.

Fast forward more than 20 years, and Akakpo juggles full-time work as a computer support specialist at the Maine Turnpike Authority with his own design business in Westbrook.

He works in a 1,000-square-foot space that's part warehouse and studio, storage boxes and containers jostling for space with delicate-looking cuff bracelets in gold and silver, coasters out of felt, and patterned glassware. His works are infused with geometrical designs created from ancient symbols known as “adinkra” representing concepts like strength, hope, endurance and bravery.

He creates the designs using a $30,000 laser printer bought with an equipment loan from Infinity Federal Credit Union, which also provided a working line of credit.

Inspiration for the jewelry business struck when Akakpo visited Ghana while raising money for a portable, ultraviolet water filtration system he invented out of recyclable plastic. At the time he noticed how many women were wearing plastic earrings with geometrical shapes that had no meaning.

“I figured that by applying that same material to the symbols, it's going to generate interest, and then in turn I'd be able to make some money,” he says.

Today, he blends his skills in jewelry making and computer-aided design as a one-man business peddling “inspired designs for your soul.” He recently launched the Maine Culture line of clothing and accessories featuring Maine motifs in colors that convey the same meanings as the adinkra symbols.

He reinvests all his earnings back into the business and 70% of proceeds from his Emekor jewelry collection into project to improve water quality in Ghana.

As he works to find more wholesale customers and think more strategically about what trade shows to attend, he's thinking about using his industrial-design skills to launch 3-D printing services.

'Building the Maine of tomorrow'

Orson Horchler, the son of a French-Moroccan mother and a Hungarian father, has been an immigrant twice in his life. Born in Philadelphia, he spent age three to 18 in a suburb of Paris he says was full of racial tension but no guns.

“One movie was made about where I grew up and it was called 'Hate,' he says. “That's how bad it was.” A U.S. citizen by birth, he considers himself a New Age-New Mainer after growing up speaking French and reading English.

“When I came here,” he says, “I had lots of vocabulary but I didn't know how to pronounce things like hippopotamus.”

After years in northern Maine, which he found unwelcoming to foreigners, he prefers Portland, where he started a high-end carpentry business two years ago. He named his firm Bondeko, the Lingala word for experiencing a family bond with those who aren't blood relatives.

That's the culture he's created for his small crew of new Mainers, who hail from Albania, the Caribbean and The Republic of the Congo.

“Emotions can run high because we're mostly here without family,” he says, “but I wouldn't be a good business leader if I didn't have that good connection.”

He picks up his team every morning in his black pick-up truck, advertising that it's “Building the Maine of Tomorrow,” for work mainly at residences.

Besides getting clients to appreciate the quality of their work, Horchler — also a street artist who goes by the name Pigeon — frequently talks to new Mainers about the value of learning a trade, telling them: “One good way of having a viable business is to learn a trade and then go out on your own.”

Speaking the language of business

Dolgormaa Hersom left Mongolia in 1996 to study political science and government at the University of Maine at Farmington despite having to teach herself English. Since she already had a sociology degree from Mongolia, she was able to graduate from UMF in two years.

She's put her language skills to work in various jobs in the past 20 years, mainly in the non-profit sector. A Mongolian and Russian interpreter and translator, she founded House of Languages Inc. in 2012. It now provides interpreter and translation services in more than 30 languages.

She employs three people full-time and one part-time and contracts more than 60 interpreters and translators, and has been seeking a document translation manager for the past few months.

“Some of the challenges we have are not really because of language services we offer, but the growing pains of a small business,” says Hersom, who prefers slow but steady expansion over taking on too much risk or debt.

Back at Rwanda Bean, Mwenedata and his business partner plan to launch a new crowdfunding campaign to raise $35,000 for a roaster after their initial try fell short. They also have big plans for their White Cap Cold Brew Coffee subsidiary via a new regional distribution agreement expected to double sales.

After a recent visit to Rwanda, Mwenedata says it's rewarding to see the country rebuilding: “It's a positive thing, so it's not hard to go back.”

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