The lobby of Columbus’s Elevate Northland Center was packed with about 30 people waiting their turn.
“Remember this was your idea, okay?” Judith Cockrell, director of Elevate Northland, told attendees. “Believe in your idea. You’re sharing it with someone else. They want to know the genius you’re sharing with them.”
Zamda Lumbi also offered some advice to his fellow attendees as they waited on a recent Saturday morning.
“When you walk in there, the judges are there to listen to you,” she said. “Don’t wait nervous. They’re not going to score you.”
The group, which included a mix of men and women in their 20s and 50s, were all waiting to pitch their business proposals to a panel of judges who were there to provide feedback. The presentations were part of the final class for a new entrepreneurship program created especially for new Americans.
The New American Entrepreneurship Project is a partnership between the nonprofit economic development organization Elevate Northland, Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services (ETSS), and Ohio State University.
“Entrepreneurship can be a way for migrants and refugees to better integrate into our community and reach their full potential,” said Andrea Contigiani, one of the program organizers and an associate professor at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business.
“We wanted to help them think, ‘What would my life look like if I could start my own business and really decide about my life completely?'” Contigiani said.
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Entrepreneurship a way to feel more at home in a foreign land
Contigiani said the program has been in the works for about two years but has been delayed due to the pandemic. After receiving funding from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which helps people achieve financial stability, upward mobility and economic prosperity, he contacted Elena Nussbaum, project manager at ETSS.
“And then, at some point, we decided that we wanted to run this program in a location in the north part of the city because that’s where most of the migrants live,” Contigiani said. “So, that’s how we found Elevate Northland.”
To discover the needs of the new American community and hear what business areas they wanted to learn about, Contigiani and colleagues from Ohio State hosted several focus groups. Most of the 62 program participants came from focus groups, he said.
The project then started in September, with lessons to be held every Saturday. Over the past two months, the group has learned how to deal with problems that may arise when starting a business, how to obtain business licenses and permits, how to obtain finance, as well as improve their public speaking skills.
For those who have difficulty understanding English, interpreters are available, Contigiani said. People in the program come from as far afield as Africa, Asia and South America and speak several languages.
More than 175,000 foreign-born people live in the Columbus metro area, or about 8.4 percent of the population, according to US Census estimates. About a third are Spanish speakers and the main immigrant (or refugee) countries are India, Mexico, Somalia, China and Bhutan.
Immigrants contributed 11.5 percent of the Columbus metro area’s gross domestic product in 2019, more than their share of the population, and paid $712 million in state and local taxes, according to research group New American Economy.
The business project concludes on Saturday with a ceremony in which participants will receive a certificate, Contigiani said. But people don’t have to take the next steps alone. The organizers have connected the group with mentors from the Fisher College of Business and will be briefed on additional resources such as the Ohio Small Business Development Center.
Arati Maleku, an associate professor at the Ohio State College of Social Work, said many immigrants can develop mental health issues when they arrive in a new country due to challenges such as language and cultural barriers and discrimination. However, she said initiatives such as the business project can help them build resilience.
“It’s not just about business, but it’s also giving them a kind of self-efficiency,” she said.
Feedback on the program from attendees has been positive, Maleku said. She, Contigiani, and the rest of their team gathered feedback and other information for a research study on entrepreneurship.
“There have been many times where people were like, ‘I really look forward to coming here every Saturday.’ Some even wrote, ‘I drive 30 minutes to get here and I really look forward to getting here every week.'”
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Trying to make an impact
Lumbi, 41, of Northwest Columbus, said a business idea had been on her mind for years: creating hairpieces for black women. She said the pieces would be an add-on to a woman’s natural hair and are ideal for those who don’t have much time to dedicate to their own hair or for girls who want to style their hair themselves, like the two daughters of she.
“I’ve seen accessories like messy buns at stores like CVS…but it’s just not for textured hair,” Lumbi said. “I felt like there was a gap somewhere in something that I thought could be useful to me and my girls.”
After the program, Lumbi plans to make a prototype of the hair strand. Eventually he wants to make enough for his family and his friends to try before making a final product.
Lumbi, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said the project was a positive experience as she learned her idea could be a marketable product. And it was helpful to take part in the program with other immigrants, she said.
“Many of us are in stages where we really feel like we’ve settled down,” Lumbi said. “Now we’re just trying to take it to the next level and make an impact.”