Part of the ceiling is missing and the wires are sitting on the floor next to the pole. Jannie Seibure stood in the center of the nearly empty space, smiling at what the aging mall would soon become.
“At the front of the store, we’ll have a display case with travel accessories … your luggage, backpacks, pillows, whatever, we’ll have a lot of good stuff to meet your travel needs,” she said.
Seibure, who is Liberian, runs her travel agency, Cavalla Travel & Tours, from a high-rise office building in Brooklyn Center.
She says for the first time she will have her own store at Shingle Creek Center where people will have easy access to her services and products. Seibure says that after many years, her business will finally be visible to anyone passing by.
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With the help of the state, various investors and the support of city council leaders, the shopping center will provide an incubator space that is affordable and suitable for small and micro businesses. It’s a groundbreaking move for women working to open up opportunities in suburban Minneapolis.
Seibure, who is also part of the Ignite Business Women Investment Group, recalls the many setbacks and challenges she faced as she navigated an often complex and unforgiving system that felt discriminatory.
“Most commercial spaces people don’t want to rent to us. Even though it’s in our own city. We are business owners, we will pay our rent. But we found that people probably didn’t want us to grow as business owners,” Seibure said. “We had the power to do it as business leaders, we just had to stand firm and see what we could do. So the group of ladies got together.
Nelima Sitati Munene, who hails from Nairobi, Kenya, is the executive director of African Career, Education and Resources, or ACER. The organization will soon be headquartered in the mall.
She, along with the Ignite Business Women Investment Group, purchased the Brooklyn Center mall to transform it into what they believe will be a model of economic inclusion and innovation.
Munene said the $5.2 million purchase of the mall was inspired by the growth of businesses run by African immigrants in the Twin Cities’ western suburbs. The mall is currently about 60 percent occupied. According to ACER, businesses currently operating in the shopping center will remain. New businesses are expected to open in the spring.
She said the development would allow her and others to continue pushing for policies that end economic exclusion and create wealth for generations in African diaspora communities.
“We found that we have a lot of micro business owners in our communities. And then we started looking at the spaces they operate in,” Munene said, noting that businesses are spread out in office buildings, contributing to their isolation from others in the community.
“We made this our mission because we had engaged our communities and clearly expressed what their dreams and aspirations were around this development, we really wanted to make it a reality for them,” she said.
This reality came into focus when Munene and local entrepreneurs discovered how important African immigrants were to the economic life of suburbs, including Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park.
“And when we started asking people, ‘how did they get into business?’ Everyone had very interesting stories — I refinanced my home, I borrowed from my family, my son, you know, cashed in his 401(k) to support me. And so we found that our business was not getting resources.”
Since the beginning of 2000, the number of African immigrants in Minnesota has increased from nearly 35,000 to nearly 90,000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The state Department of Employment and Economic Development reports that the largest number of African immigrants in Minnesota are from East Africa, mostly Somalia and Ethiopia; followed by West Africa with 32,500 inhabitants, with the largest numbers from Liberia and Nigeria.
An estimated 4,500 African immigrants from Somalia, Liberia and Nigeria live in the northwest suburbs.
Munene and Seibure say Brooklyn Center Mall will be a place for business owners, by business owners.
“The world will be able to see us more, not by the color of our skin, to know that we are business leaders, strong business women with a lot of energy who really want to do more.” So that’s pretty exciting for us,” Seibure said.