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‘Lifting as We Climb’ conference aims to bolster African business

Gene Gelgelu
Gene Gelgelu speaks at a Nov. 2 press conference. Photos courtesy of AEDS

Black Headline News
Minnesota Spokesman Recorder
By Abdi Mohamed

African entrepreneurs and leaders from across the country are set to gather in Minneapolis on Dec. 8 and 9 for the 3rd Annual National African Leadership Conference organized by the St. Paul-based African Economic Development Solutions (AEDS). 

This is the first time the conference will be held in person as a hybrid event, with some in-person events held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Minneapolis and others virtually on Zoom. 

The leadership conference will be highlighted by keynote speeches from Professor P.L.O Lumumba, former director of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission, and Dr. Verna Price, CEO of People Consulting Group. There will also be several panels and workshops covering topics that include financial technology, alternative financing, women in leadership, early childhood education, and health and wellness. 

The title of this year’s conference is “Lifting as We Climb.” The gathering aims to “amplify African immigrant voices and facilitate meaningful dialogue among multisector African immigrant leaders about our communities’ challenges, opportunities, and contributions across the US and internationally” as stated by AEDS in their press release about the two-day event.

AEDS started in 2008 as a platform to help small businesses owned by African immigrants to gain access to financial and technical resources. It provides several services such as educational workshops and technical assistance in the areas of accounting, legal issues, and marketing.

AEDS also provides entrepreneurs with business loans of up to $100,000 for existing businesses to expand and up to $25,000 for new businesses on their launch. 

The lending organization was founded by Gene Gelgelu who now serves as its president and CEO. Gelgelu, who is from Ethiopia, banded together with other immigrant business owners after having realized the economic disparities that they were facing came from language and cultural barriers. 

Instead of navigating the financial landscape alone, Gelgelu and his peers came together to form AEDS to help those facing what they once had to traverse alone. Now clients of AEDS can not only receive funding for their businesses but also access homeownership education and business coaching.

Now, after 14 years, AEDS has supported thousands of entrepreneurs, according to Gelgelu, when just 20 years ago there were only a handful of African-owned businesses. 

“Long time ago, when you came here and we had very few, actually one or two restaurants on Riverside,” he said. “Now, today, that’s not the story. 

“Just in St. Paul, we have so many restaurants. In Minneapolis, we have so many restaurants. Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, in a different part of the state…even including in the suburbs.”

Tsegaye Gelgelu is the community building and special projects manager at AEDS. He describes how the organization reflects the diaspora that is represented in the Twin Cities. “We have a Ugandan employee, we have a Liberian employee, we have Ethiopians. We have a Somali guy. So, we are providing culture-specific services for our communities,” he said. 

AEDS has supported a wide range of businesses including restaurants, home health care, and transportation, all of which have had an impact on the state. A 2015 study published by Dr. Bruce Corrie of Concordia University found that African immigrant business owners in Minnesota generated over $1.6 billion in income purchasing power each year. Through the support of organizations like AEDS, Gelgelu believes that this can increase. 

Beko Tufa is one of the many business owners who have walked through the doors of AEDS to receive business support. She operates the Ethiopian restaurant Dilla which is located in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Like many of the entrepreneurs that AEDS assists, Tufa had already been operating her business, but needed help working out the logistics of permits to run it at full capacity. 

“The first time I asked about them, the business [had been] open six months, maybe one year, I don’t remember. Somebody told me to go over there. I take the phone number, I call him, he made an appointment. I go there and they helped me with everything,” Tufa recalled. “Business license, liquor license—I remember being there for four hours to get me permits from the City of Minneapolis.”

AEDS also helped Tufa with financial loans, one of which was for $20,000 in contract work and another $100,000 to establish her second restaurant in St. Paul. Dilla recently celebrated 10 years of business this past June and looks to partner with AEDS as it expands. 

This growth and positive impact on businesses over the years was not enough to stave off the financial meteor that cratered the Twin Cities in 2020. While many businesses were impacted by the pandemic, the Twin Cities saw many immigrant-owned businesses close due to the economic impact of COVID-19 along with the civil uprising that followed the murder of George Floyd.

Areas like Lake Street and University Avenue where many African-owned businesses are located found themselves going out of business virtually overnight. Seeing the damage done, Gelgelu and his staff launched a GoFundMe campaign to support affected businesses. 

“We said we’re going to raise funds for those involved in the civil uprising,” he said. “We are not a grant-making organization, but we said, you know what, what we’re going to do is for the transparency. We’re gonna have a diverse group, African group, to set the criteria of who should receive the money.” 

AEDS raised over $400,000 for African immigrant business owners negatively affected by the pandemic and civil uprisings. They also helped distribute millions of dollars in state and federal funds for COVID relief. 

With its first in-person event to take place next month, AEDS is planning to use the conference to uplift the African immigrant community in Minnesota and beyond to network and support one another in their shared entrepreneurial endeavors. 

“The conference that we are going to hold is a means or a catalyst or a vehicle for galvanizing the African immigrant communities,” Tsegaye said. “We are also trying to bring together the African immigrant communities and form some kind of network whereby their voices can be heard when approaching different policymakers.”

Gelgelu echoed this sentiment and explained that all are welcome to attend the conference, as many of these topics are related to many communities. “It’s about creating our own space where our folks can have a place to network and learn from each other and those networks of leaders across the U.S. We also have a very diverse panel of speakers, including those of Black heritage.”

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