Today, 349 refugees and immigrants from 43 nations have been through StartSmart’s classes or coaching. Thirty percent of them have started businesses, and 70% of those start-ups are still in operation.

You can see signs of the change throughout Portland. On Saturday mornings downtown, for example, there’s a gathering of Somalian men playing dominoes and swapping stories at Amei Halal, a Somalian grocery store. Down the street, there’s another grocery store selling Southeast Asian foods and offering cooking classes to a group of nonimmigrant Mainers. Both are StartSmart businesses.



StartSmart entrepreneurs, particularly those from Russia and some African nations, often come to counselors with one question: “How much should I pay the government for a permit for my business?”



They are not asking about legal permit fees. They are thinking there must be some kind of payoff required to run a business. Yankauskas says she’s learned it must be clearly stated in StartSmart classes: Do not offer government officials money. Many immigrants come with the right skills, a strong work ethic, and the will to succeed, but their lack of understanding of American business culture can undermine their success. “There are people who come in and say, ‘Can you help us start a goat meat plant?'” says Yankauskas. “My job is to say, ‘Okay, if you sell goat meat it has to be killed in a USDA-certified slaughterhouse. Then it has to be transported safely. And when you sell it, you have to maintain it at certain temperatures.'”



StartSmart also helps with all other aspects of launching a business. When Le Vo opened Style 29, a beauty salon in downtown Portland, StartSmart got her a $17,000 loan, found the building, negotiated the lease, and helped work out conflicts with the landlord over plumbing problems. This was crucial because Vo, a Vietnamese immigrant, struggles with English. Early on, StartSmart centered the program on its classes. But eventually the administrators saw that most immigrant entrepreneurs needed more one-on-one coaching. “The classes were not reaping starts,” says Yankauskas. “In the beginning, we tried to have classes with people from Eastern Europe and Africa, and it was really difficult because they had different learning styles and communication styles. The Africans just wanted to talk and think out loud, and the Eastern Europeans came from a culture where the teacher was the expert. They wanted step-by-step instruction. So it was not working to have the joint groups. It was actually the one-to-one counseling that we did after those classes that really helped people move to a start or an expansion.”



The program still offers classes but most advice is now given individually. One common lesson that is taught across cultural lines: No one ethnic group can support a business in Maine. It is a nuanced lesson since some businesses start with very strong support from their own ethnic groups. But these entrepreneurs must learn not to be entrapped by their niches. Juan Gonzalez, owner of La Bodega Latina, conducted surveys with customers during his first year to learn what items were missing from their daily grocery-store buying experiences. After the surveys, he decided to add African and Asian food and also created a strong selection of traditional American brands.



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