Seattle merchant fair tackles unique needs of East African businesses

The Rainier Beach Merchants Association held a resource fair to help local business owners find ways to address the unique needs of East African business owners. (Photo courtesy Rainier Beach Merchants Association)
The Rainier Beach Merchants Association held a resource fair to help local business owners find ways to address the unique needs of East African business owners. (Photo courtesy Rainier Beach Merchants Association)

This story originally appeared on the South Seattle Emerald.

The Rainier Beach Merchants Association (RBMA) hosted its first small business resource night at a local Ethiopian Community Center. The goal was to connect local business owners with alternative funding sources, business mentoring, and an opportunity to connect with their peers.

In attendance were 40 residents of Rainier Beach. Half were local business owners and the rest were a mix of service providers and community members, some of whom, like Membera Tadesse hope to start their own business some day. Tadesse is from Ethiopia, but has lived in Rainier Beach for 10 years and works at the Community Café. Her hope is to start her own café within the next year. “We learned a lot of things tonight,” she said. Her hope is that these meetings will become a monthly affair.

The evening began with snacks, mingling, and an extensive panel that gave elevator speeches on the resources they were able to provide. The panel included representatives from the City’s Office of Economic Development, Rainier Valley Fund Development, Community Capital Development, Craft3, SCORE, SBA and more. There were bankers and financial planners as well as people representing organizations that provided everything from mentoring, financial counseling, and technical assistance to Reba-free loans compliant with Sharia law. Though many Muslim business owners might qualify for traditional loans, paying excessive interest is against their religion, which can limit their access to capital.

One organization specialized in micro loans between $5,000 to $50,000 while another provided support to more established businesses for remodel or expansion expenses with capital loans between $50,000 to $1 Million. Another group explained crowd funding as a non traditional model that sourced zero percent interest loans by soliciting matching contributions from people in the community. In economically disadvantaged communities the model allows for business owners to partner with more affluent communities to meet the matching requirements. The recurring theme was that everyone had gathered to do their part to identify and eliminate potential challenges to small business ownership in the Rainier Valley.

“The turnout was better than I was hoping for with it being a Friday night and this being the first time we’ve done anything like this,” said Maia Segura of the Rainier Beach Merchants Association.

The idea for the event evolved from a conversation between Segura and Habtamu Adbi the owner of Super Shine Car Detail. When asked how the Rainier Beach Merchants Association could best support him he answered: “You know we need to meet people who can actually help our businesses grow because there are so many barriers to getting to that next level. We can open our doors but we just can’t get a foot hold.”

Abdi helped canvass every business in the neighborhood to make sure everyone knew about the event. Abdi is Ethiopian and has lived in Rainier Beach for the last nine years. Four years ago he bought the carwash formerly known as AutoFitness. He now shares space with the latest incarnation of Catfish Corner.

“I met him [Terrell Jackson] on Henderson. So I reached out to him. I saw energy passion and interest in him, just like myself. So with our first conversation we just connected like that,” said Abdi, recounting the story of how he came into partnership with Catfish Corner owner Terrell Jackson. “We need to bring businesses together, because when you bring businesses together, you bring communities together. I would say this is the first business that Africans and African Americans own together on the same property and I’m so proud of that.”

When asked about the challenges that face business owners in the South End he responded: “The challenges we have so far is that there are a lot of hurdles in place, not maybe intentionally designed, but the unintended consequences are really killing a lot of minority owned businesses.”

He cited the inaccessibility as financing as being just one of many obstacles. “I can just give you one scenario, if you don’t have good credit you will not be qualified for any loan though the conventional way of the banking system, but if you look at historically underrepresented communities like me and you for some reason in life there is always problems with credit, so technically we are always disqualified from using the traditional banking system.”

While the event was successful in attracting East African business owners, the Rainier Valley is host to many Asian owned and operated businesses as well. “The Asian businesses are a little harder to get to because they don’t have a super big connected community the same way that say the Somalis or the Ethiopians do,” explained Segura. “So I think that’s our real challenge. I think we’re doing great outreach to East Africans and pretty good out reach to African Americans, great outreach to the white folks that have businesses down here, but the Asian folks tend to be elusive and we need to crack that nut.”

Ultimately the RBMA would like to connect all business owners with the resources they need, but given the diversity present in the Valley there is no one size fits all solution. “Their needs are really different from the East African needs and maybe some of the other immigrants as well,” explained Wayne Lau, Executive Director of the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund. “ Most of the Asian businesses that I know of actually have access to capital.”

Many Asian immigrants have been a part of the community for longer periods of time or have had business experiences in their home countries that have been structured in ways more similar to how business is run in the States. “They don’t necessarily see a need to really participate,” said Lau.

Those who did participate seemed to get a lot out of the experience. “Several people were asking for another event like this. And someone suggest a speed mentoring event,” said Segura. “So we’re thinking about maybe doing that or maybe something happening in a small group with translation services available.”