Showing Respect for Where They Come From

Coastal Enterprises, Inc., exemplifies how support from Wells Fargo’s Diverse Community Capital program can bring economic opportunity to underserved populations.
Feb 4, 2020 10:05 AM ET
Article

The American dream — rooted in struggle and resulting in achievements that benefit entire communities — continues to play out for immigrants such as Adrian Espinoza Garcia and Mariama Jallow. Garcia, originally from Bolivia, and Jallow, who was born in The Gambia, are recent business owners in Portland, Maine.

Coastal Enterprises, Inc., or CEI, played an important role in the trajectories of both Garcia and Jallow. CEI is a Community Development Financial Institution, or CDFI, one of 95 in the U.S. participating in the Wells Fargo Works for Small Business Diverse Community Capital, or DCC, program.  Visit Wells Fargo Stories to watch the video.

Through organizations like CEI, which are focused on specific needs of their localities, Wells Fargo is providing $175 million in grant and debt capital to diverse small business owners to enable economic growth and job creation. Wells Fargo’s DCC program, which started in 2015, empowers business owners from backgrounds that are underrepresented in the U.S., including people of color, immigrants, veterans, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and others. To date, the program has provided 16,000 loans and 322,000 hours of training with Wells Fargo’s investment, leading to 103,000 jobs at small businesses across the nation.

“Small businesses are the heartbeat of communities, which is why we partner with CDFIs for meaningful job creation and growth,” said Connie Smith, Wells Fargo’s DCC program manager. “CDFIs can give them technical assistance in addition to lending capital.”

This month, Wells Fargo is announcing a round of funding for the DCC program, helping to create or maintain an additional 50,000 jobs at diverse small businesses across the country by partnering with seven CDFIs.

The program is continually amplifying efforts like those underway at CEI in Maine, where economic opportunities have been realized for about 500 immigrant-owned businesses, including Jallow’s beauty salon and Garcia’s Empanada Club.

Untangling the complexity of American business ownership

Growing up in The Gambia, Jallow watched her mother begin each day with a six-mile round-trip trek carrying four gallons of milk on her head, which she would take to the market to sell. This would help sustain her family. After that, her mother would open up her shop, a small grocery store, where Jallow worked alongside her, learning all about running a business. 

“My mother was a role model for me,” said Jallow, now living in Portland, Maine. “She wasn’t the type of person who would wait for others to do things for her. I was really motivated by seeing my mother struggle like that to feed her family, and how successful she became.”

Jallow immigrated to the United States in 2012 with the energy and skills to continue her career as a shopkeeper. CEI helped get her started by working with her to untangle the complexity of entrepreneurship.

“It is definitely hard to start a business when you come from a different country,” Jallow said. “You don’t know where to start. Nothing is the same.”

Portland has a small but rapidly growing immigrant population. CEI, with offices state-wide, focuses on providing technical assistance and mentoring to recent immigrants such as Jallow.

Jallow worked directly with John Scribner, the director of CEI’s StartSmart program, which offers expertise on everything from business planning and applying for loans, to bookkeeping and insurance.

“To this day, whenever I sit down, and I think, ‘I am stressed out, I can’t do this,’ I go to CEI, and they always tell me that I can,” Jallow said. “John (Scribner) will even come to see me. So that is big. It has been a very big help to me.”

Scribner said his approach is all about meeting people where they are.

“Immigrants arrive in the U.S. with varying levels of business experience,” Scribner said. “Some of them are business people who were very successful in their home countries. When they get to the U.S., however, many struggle with access issues, and end up working dead-end or very basic entry-level jobs. But they really are business people.

“What we do at CEI is about showing respect for the skills an entrepreneur brings,” Scribner continued. “We give them information and guidance, and they decide what’s best for them.”  

The interwoven needs of a community

Jallow envisioned opening a beauty supply store and hair-braiding salon that would address an interwoven need for hair care services and job opportunities.

The lack of hair care product availability and styling service options were a problem for African immigrants in Portland, Jallow said. Among the many challenges of living in a new and much colder climate, many struggled to find what they needed to maintain the health of their hair.

Jallow planned to employ cosmetologists as well as African immigrants skilled in hair-braiding, a popular protective hairstyle. Her plan hit a snag when she discovered that a law in Maine prohibited her from employing hair-braiders without cosmetology licenses.

“These requirements made it so that skilled hair-braiders were limited in their ability to earn a decent living,” Jallow said. “They were only able to braid hair at their homes, because that did not require that they go to school to learn English.”  

Scribner and CEI helped Jallow smooth out the issue by advocating for a shift in the law. She testified before the state legislature, which led to a bill allowing hair-braiding without a cosmetology license.

“The fact that Jallow showed up, in person, to talk to the legislature was probably what made the legislation glide through so easily,” Scribner said.

The outcome was perfectly aligned with CEI’s mission to grow an economy that works for everyone.

“In a time where immigrants are not always seen in a positive light, it helps break down barriers when people see that the American dream is playing out through these new ‘Main Street’ businesses,” Scribner said. 

Jallow’s salon and store, Mariama’s Beauty Supply, has now served Portland since 2016 as the first local store solely dedicated to African hair product sales and services.

The salon and store has benefited the community as a gathering place for immigrants from all parts of Africa to connect and relax. Jallow recently qualified for a loan from CEI for working capital.

“People will sometimes ask me, ‘Who is Mariama? Who is the store named after?’” Jallow said. “And when I tell them it is me, they think it is amazing. They say, ‘You are definitely a role model for us, and showing us what is possible.’”

“I am hoping CEI will be here for others, for generations to come,” Jallow said.