Refugee Women Learning To Run A Small Business With The Help Of Mentors And Businesswomen

Cindy Lange-Kubick
Lincoln Journal Star, Neb.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)  The ECHO Collective — “Empowering Communities through Her Opportunities”, is a unique program where established businesswomen mentor refugee and immigrant women who want to start their own businesses. 


Friday night was graduation night for the entrepreneurs.

The six women made up the first class at The Refinery, a program designed to give immigrant and refugee women the opportunity to achieve economic independence and social capital.

A 10-week program that offered business education and professional mentorships — by women, for women.

The virtual ceremony, courtesy of COVID-19, lasted 15 minutes.
There was Olga Mendez on the computer screen sitting alongside Kathia Ortiz, a mother- and-daughter team who run Jello Artesano, creating pieces of delicious art with gelatin.

There was Sakeena Nazari, the seamstress behind Sakeena Tailoring, and Sharistan Haji, who imports evening wear and accessories from Turkey and Iraq to sell in Lincoln.

There was Shadia Angelo, who plans wedding receptions through Shadia Events, and Cecilia Vargas, who makes beautiful scarves and sweaters and calls her company Best Knit.

Their mentors’ faces appeared in the video, too, and so did the businesswomen who taught them, and Kelly Ross, who dreamed up the nonprofit, created a program and made it happen.

“Thank you for trusting me,” she told them. “And congratulations on graduating from The Refinery. The best is yet to come.”
— — —
Earlier in the day, the six entrepreneurs had arrived at the Turbine Flats classroom, where they had met three times a week for 10 weeks, part of the flagship program of ECHO Collective — Empowering Communities through Her Opportunities.

They collected goodie bags with business cards and note cards with their logos inside and posed for photos with Ross.

Ross grew up in Lincoln. She graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2013, realizing she had no idea what she wanted to do with her Spanish degree.

So she started volunteering with Southeast Community College’s Family Literacy Program, a grant-funded Lincoln Public Schools project that teaches English to parents of students during school hours.

“I quickly discovered I am completely in love with our immigrant and refugee community and wanted to do that full-time.”

Six years ago, she launched the Family Literacy Program at Lakeview Elementary School, padding her part-time paycheck with other jobs that dovetailed with her career path.

She worked for four years as a paralegal at a law firm that specialized in immigration cases. She was a caseworker for Lutheran Family Services and ran the citizenship program at El Centro for three years.
And how did she do all of this?

“Barely,” said Ross, 31, who was homeschooled for the first half of her K-12 education and spent the last half at Norris schools. “I have a hard time leaving.”

But she is leaving Lakeview and the Family Literacy Program to focus on ECHO.

Dec. 17 is her last day.

She started the nonprofit in September and launched its first program — The Refinery — the day after Labor Day. She plans to have three more classes in 2021.
buy elavil online no prescription

The idea was born out of work with refugee and immigrant women and a need that she saw going unfilled, particularly for women who were still learning English.

“I was meeting women who were driven and exceptionally skilled and wanting to provide for their families financially,” Ross said. “But there was no way to pursue their dreams and they were having to put them on the back burner and that was frustrating.”

Along the way, Ross also worked part-time as the program director for Totonga Bomoi, a nonprofit started by Lincoln resident Katie Patrick that provided business training to women in the Congo.

Ross wondered if that model would work here in Lincoln and considered starting The Refinery as a program of Totonga Bomoi.

But Hile encouraged her to set out on her own and mentored her through the process, Ross said.
“She said, ‘This is your baby. You should run with it.'”
— — —
The first day of class was cold and windy.
The rain was blowing sideways. Ross’ umbrella broke as she made her way to Turbine Flats on Y Street.

She worried no one would come.
“They all showed up and within the first week, this program had grown bigger than me.”

They followed pandemic protocols.
Everyone wore masks. They had temperature checks. They held class in a big, open space.

Most of the women spoke and understood English at an intermediate level, Ross said. They already had small home businesses or the desire to develop them.

Ross had no trouble recruiting women to join the first cohort.
“I knew so many women who would fit well.”
She recruited businesswomen to teach business basics and marketing, social media skills, record keeping and budgeting.

“The fact that successful American women are donating their time and sharing their industry knowledge is very overwhelming, in a positive way, to our entrepreneurs,” she said.

And the final piece, mentors to pair up with each entrepreneur, women who came from Mexico and Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan.

Katie Becker, founder of Tasty Good Toffee, gladly agreed to partner with the mother-and-daughter team from Jello Artesano.

They met weekly for an hour or more over the 10-week program, Becker said, and she shared her journey as a small-business owner who started with a family recipe seven years ago and turned it into a successful retail and wholesale business.

She connected Mendez and Ortiz to potential markets and vendors and is working to help find them commercial kitchen space for their jiggly works of art.

“I could see their product being a pop-up at a floral shop or a Mexican restaurant as a featured baker or long-term staple.”
The women navigated language, too.

“My four years of high school Spanish wasn’t enough, but the beauty of this kind of mentorship requires us to slow down and really understand each other.”

She sees that as a positive.

“Kelly has created something wonderful,” Becker said. “We need this.”
The mentorship meant a lot, said Sharistan Haji, who was paired with Maddie Graham, owner of the clothing resale business Frugal Fox.

“Maddie, she helped me a lot, and she is so nice,” said Haji, who is Yazidi. “I thought she is like a friend for a long time.”

Haji learned how to use social media to market her clothing business, Sharo Rasho. How to take photos for Instagram. How to navigate regulations.
“When I start my small business, I’m scared about the government, because I don’t know the rules,” Haji said. “Now I know a lot of information about the government and everything I need to do.”
The women all thrived, Ross said.
“I really want to emphasize the fact that I’m just opening the door for them and giving them the tools to succeed and getting out of their way.”
— — —
On the 15-minute graduation video, the entrepreneurs share their stories.
They talk about financial freedom, supporting their families, following their dreams.
Their mentors share their love and admiration and the businesswomen use words such as creative, intelligent, disciplined, brave and talented to describe the graduates.

And so does Ross, the founder with a vision.
“I see six confident women who understand their power,” she says. “Power that affirms their own might and will lead their families, their neighbors and their communities to a better tomorrow.”

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Most Popular

To Top