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Willmar, Minn., African population is seeing growth as businesses optimistic

WILLMAR -- Many of the African business owners in Willmar are optimistic about the ultimate success of their businesses in the community, according to a survey of African-owned businesses in the community.

The African Development Center conducted the survey late last year and released the results Thursday.

"The bottom line is there are a lot of good things happening in Willmar in the African community," said Hussein Samatar, ADC executive director.

"We feel they will need a lot of help to make it in this community."

Samatar said the business owners may be optimistic, but they will need advice and technical assistance from organizations like the ADC to be successful in the long term. The ADC also finances small businesses, he said, but the businesses in Willmar are not ready for that yet.

The ADC of Minneapolis conducted the survey through its Willmar satellite office. Samatar and chief financial officer Nasibu Sareva discussed the survey results at the Willmar office, along with Yusuf Ahmed, the director of the Willmar office. Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, also attended the survey announcement.

"They really love the city," Samatar said. "They want to stay here."

The survey found about 15 businesses in the city, almost all of them less than 5 years old. Eleven of the businesses completed an interview and answered a list of 43 questions about their education, experience, financial knowledge and knowledge of opportunities in the community.

Nearly half of the business owners have not finished high school, and only one of them has a bachelor's degree. About 80 percent of them are not aware of financial options that are available to them in their businesses.

About two-thirds of the businesses are owned by men and one-third by women. Ahmed said women tend to run the shops that sell clothing and perfume, while men own the grocery stores and some other businesses.

The lower education levels could make it challenging for these young businesses to succeed, Samatar said, but the ADC plans to be in Willmar for a long time.

"We are very patient. ... We know Willmar's going to take time," he said. "We are very intentional in investing the money in Willmar." The ADC chose to put an office in Willmar because of the employment opportunities here, he added.

Some of the first steps will be teaching the business owners, most new to the United States, about networking, understanding local regulations and customs and writing business plans.

The men acknowledged that it may take a generation for the African community, mostly Somali, to fully develop the financial literacy to grow and expand their small businesses.

"They are just starting to integrate into the mainstream," Ahmed said. He expects to see a change when the generation now in high school moves into the business community. "In 10 years it will be different."

Ahmed said he often visits adult English classes to talk about financial literacy and the benefits of how the financial system works. If people come to his office seeking help with filling out forms for social services or schools, he helps them with that and takes the opportunity to talk to them about financial issues, too.

Ahmed is participating in the chamber's Leadership Perspectives class this year, something that should help him learn more about the community and help the African community find resources it needs, Samatar said.

The ADC has taught financial literacy and home ownership classes in its Willmar office. Sareva said he and his staff are also planning a workshop in Willmar on writing business plans.

Warner said the path taken by the African community in Willmar is similar to that followed by recent immigrants.

Samatar said their goals are to work, study and educate their children -- "the American Dream."

The chamber and the ADC have worked well together, Warner said. "I'm proud to see that Willmar is out there leading as well," he said. "Willmar is known for its diversity and our efforts in breaking new horizons."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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