Photos courtesy of AEDS
African entrepreneurs and leaders from across the country will gather in Minneapolis on December 8th and 9th for the 3rd annual National African Leadership Conference organized by 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 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Minneapolis and others virtually on Zoom.
The leadership conference will be marked by keynote addresses by Professor PLO 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 on topics such as financial technology, alternative finance, women leaders, early childhood education and health and wellness.
The title of this year’s conference is “Lifting as We Climb”. The meeting aims to “amplify the voices of African immigrants and facilitate meaningful dialogue among African immigrant leaders from different sectors about the challenges, opportunities and contributions of our communities in the United States and internationally,” according to AEDS in its press release about the two-day event stated.
AEDS started in 2008 as a platform to help African immigrant-owned small businesses access financial and technical resources. It offers various services such as educational workshops and technical support in the areas of accounting, legal issues and marketing.
AEDS also offers entrepreneurs business loans of up to $100,000 for the expansion of existing businesses and up to $25,000 for new businesses as they are formed.
The credit organization was founded by Gene Gelgelu, who now serves as President and CEO. Gelgelu, who hails from Ethiopia, joined forces with other immigrant business owners after realizing that the economic differences they faced stemmed from language and cultural barriers.
Rather than navigating the financial landscape alone, Gelgelu and his colleagues came together to found AEDS to help those facing what they once had to navigate alone. Now AEDS clients can not only get finance for their businesses, but also access home ownership education and business coaching.
Now, after 14 years, AEDS has supported thousands of entrepreneurs, according to Gelgelu, while 20 years ago there were only a handful of African-owned companies.
“A long time ago when you came here and we had very few, actually one or two restaurants on the Riverside,” he said. “Well, today, that’s not the story.
“We have so many restaurants in St. Paul alone. In Minneapolis we have so many restaurants. Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, in another part of the state… even in the suburbs.”
Tsegaye Gelgelu is the Community Buildings and Special Projects Manager at AEDS. He describes how the organization reflects the diaspora represented in the Twin Cities. “We have a Ugandan collaborator, we have a Liberian collaborator, we have Ethiopians. We have a Somali. So we provide culture-specific services to our communities,” he said.
AEDS has supported a wide range of businesses, including restaurants, home health care and transportation, all of which have impacted the state. one of dr A 2015 study published by Bruce Corrie of Concordia University found that African immigrant business owners in Minnesota generate over $1.6 billion in income purchasing power each year. Gelgelu believes this can increase with support from organizations like AEDS.
Beko Tufa is one of the many business owners who have walked through the doors of AEDS for business support. She runs the Ethiopian restaurant Dilla in the Cedar-Riverside district. Like many of the entrepreneurs that AEDS supports, Tufa had already run their business but needed help working out the permitting logistics to run it at full capacity.
“When I first asked about you, the business [had been] opened six months, maybe a year, I don’t remember. Someone told me to go there. I take the phone number, I call him, he makes 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 permits from the City of Minneapolis.”
AEDS also helped Tufa with financial loans, one of which included $20,000 for commissioned work and another $100,000 to set up their second restaurant in St. Paul. Dilla celebrated its 10th anniversary last June and is looking to partner with AEDS as it expands.
That growth and positive impact on businesses over the years wasn’t enough to stave off the financial meteor that hit the Twin Cities in 2020. While many businesses have been impacted by the pandemic, many immigrant-owned businesses in the Twin Cities have had to close due to the economic impact of COVID-19 along with the civil insurgency that followed the killing of George Floyd.
Areas like Lake Street and University Avenue, which are home to many African-owned businesses, found they went out of business virtually overnight. Seeing the damage done, Gelgelu and his associates launched a GoFundMe campaign to support affected businesses.
“We have said that we will raise funds for those involved in the civil uprising,” he said. “We’re not a funding agency, but we’ve said, you know what, what we’re going to do is for transparency. We’re going to have a mixed group, an African group, to set the criteria for who should get the money.”
AEDS raised over $400,000 for African migrant business owners negatively impacted 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 scheduled to take place next month, AEDS plans to use the conference to encourage the African immigrant community in Minnesota and beyond to network and support one another in their collective entrepreneurial endeavors.
“The conference that we are going to hold is a means or a catalyst or a vehicle to mobilize the African immigrant communities,” Tsegaye said. “We’re also trying to bring the African immigrant communities together and create a kind of network where their voices can be heard as they reach out to different policymakers.”
Gelgelu echoed this sentiment, stating that everyone is welcome to attend the conference as many of these issues affect many communities. “It’s about creating our own space where our people have a place to connect and learn from each other and from those networks of leaders across the US. We also have a very diverse panel of speakers, including those of black heritage.”
For more information, visit www.africanleadershipconference.com.
Abdi Mohamed is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman recorder. He can be reached at [email protected]