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Somali chamber sets goals | Somali chamber sets goals – Somali American Chamber of Commerce (SOAMCC)

Somali chamber sets goals

Abdulkadir Ali has spent the last several months knocking on the doors of many of central Ohio’s growing population of Somali business owners.

His goal?

To persuade more of them to join the newly refocused Somali American Chamber of Commerce.

Ali, who has owned several small businesses since he immigrated to the U.S. in 1984, took over as president of the Somali chamber in July. Although the chamber was first organized four years ago, it opened its first office last month at 3276 Morse Rd.

Now, Ali is looking to grow the chamber’s membership, which had held steady at 11 members since opening in 2004. Under his leadership, the group has since grown to include 51 new members, he said, and he’s hoping to recruit several hundred more.

But because of cultural differences among Somali business owners, signing up members has been a challenge, Ali said.

“When the chamber first opened, everyone was so busy trying to grow their own individual businesses, that they didn’t really understand the value of joining together to build a business community,” he said.

“Most Somalis come here with a natural desire for entrepreneurship, but because back home, we are used to doing business individually, we didn’t know how to incorporate under one umbrella.”

The Somali chamber is among eight such immigrant organizations in central Ohio that have formed business associations to support one another and learn how to thrive in the marketplace.

The most recent was formed by immigrants from several African countries, while others represent Asian and Latino business owners.

Franklin County’s immigrant population grew 158 percent between 1990 and 2004, according to U.S. census data. A large portion of that population is Somalis and Latinos.

There are thought to be between 35,000 and 80,000 Somali immigrants and refugees in central Ohio, according to Columbus and Franklin County officials.

As more Somalis become longer-term business owners, the likelihood that more would join a chamber grows, said H. Rao Unnava, a marketing professor in Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

In some African and Asian cultures, there’s a fear that if a business owner shares his interests with someone else, his business could be taken over, he said.

“For many, those fears and distrust of the system follow them to the U.S., where they think the same thing will happen,” Unnava said. “As they get more exposed to the American business culture, they see the value in being part of a group.”

Such has been the case for Yassin Matan, who owns Darbo Restaurant, a Somali and Italian cuisine cafe and bistro on the North Side. Matan said he’s considering joining the chamber, but because the chamber and the concept itself are still so new, he’s not sure yet if he will.

In addition to establishing offices, Ali said the chamber hopes to attract more members by establishing a Web site and database of Somali-owned businesses in the area as a way to advance networking opportunities for members.

Ali estimates that there are 500 Somali-owned businesses in central Ohio, most of then located on the North Side.

Many of them got startup funds from the Economic and Community Development Institute. The nonprofit group, based in Columbus, provides small business loans to borrowers who don’t qualify for traditional financing.

The group has funded 141 business startups and 107 business expansions since July 2004, said Peggy Sloin vice president of development for the organization. Of those businesses, 83 percent were minority owned and 50 percent were owned by immigrants, she said.

The majority of them are very small businesses, some with fewer than five employees, Sloin said.

Abdulkadir Aden, who owns the African Food Warehouse on the North Side, joined the Somali chamber when it began four years ago. He said its resurgence fueled him to become treasurer as a way to show other Somali business owners the advantages of business unity.

“I know what a chamber does and what it can do,” said Aden, who’s been a business owner for more than 10 years. “It’s helped me grow my business, and now I want to be a role model for others.”

tturner@dispatch.com

The Somali chamber is one of eight such immigrant business associations in central Ohio.

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