The first all-refugee class of the Everyday Entrepreneur Program completed a major milestone last fall, and celebrated their graduation in February.
The class, which had 15 students, studied through The Mill at Salt Lake Community College, which provides space, education, and access to resources for those wanting to start a small business or grow an existing business.
During one of the leadership classes in The Mill’s refugee leadership program, Bennett Muhoza, a Congolese student, approached Beth Colosimo, the director of The Mill, to ask if Colosimo could teach a class exclusively to a group of Congolese refugees.
“I went to Beth and told her that others in my community would love to know how to start their own business,” Muhoza said.
Colosimo was able to secure funding for the twelve-week class through a training fund from Salt Lake County, estimated at $10,000. The class convened once a week and ran from October to December last year.
When it came to graduation, the students presented their business ideas, including Muhoza, who shared her idea for a commercial cleaning company.
Muhoza fled to the United States from the Congo in 2014 to escape the country’s ongoing war. Even though she felt grateful to live in a safer environment, she had difficulty learning a new language and adjusting to a culture that she was unfamiliar with.
“Language was the most difficult challenge for me when I first arrived here,” Muhoza said. “I’m still learning how to articulate what I want to say so that others can understand me.”
Muhoza was able to acquire aid from community services, who sent her to school to help her learn English, but she was forced to discontinue her studies after a few months because she needed to work to pay her bills.
“Working actually helped me overcome the language barrier because you can listen to others talk and pick up the language that way,” Muhoza said.
She quickly became dissatisfied with the long hours and low pay of her job, a sentiment that was echoed by others in her community.
“We wanted a better life: One where we could spend time with our families and appreciate the things and people we care about,” Muhoza said. “My community is always striving to grow, but there is a real lack of resources available for the refugee population.”
Muhoza was thrilled to witness a cultural celebration at the graduation ceremony for the class, in which students brought food and performed cultural dances.
“It felt so good to see my classmates graduate because I know this is not something that came easy for them, but I am so grateful they stayed,” Muhoza said. “I was excited that I knew what my community needed, and the fact I was able to provide it for them meant so much to me.”
Colosimo said the Everyday Entrepreneur Program started a few years ago when they identified gaps in the marketplace.
“We all have heard about the tech community that is so vibrant in Utah, but where I felt we were missing the mark was with the mom-and-pop small startups,” Colosimo said. “We wanted to focus on underserved communities or populations that want to start their basic house cleaning services, lawn care services, taco trucks, landscaping, anything that is a kind of a low barrier to entry.”
Colosimo’s passion for small businesses stems from her six-year ownership of Wasatch Home Furnishings, which has made her sympathetic to the amount of labor and dedication required to launch a startup from the ground up.
“I went through the trials and tribulations of what it means to start a small business,” Colosimo said. “Small businesses are the backbone of America and what makes our communities so vibrant and interesting.”
Colosimo said they were able to validate their company ideas with genuine client input, establish a business plan, create a brand, expand their network and launch their business within the course, but it was not without difficulties.
“I falsely assumed that because these refugees had been in the country for years that their English was better than it was,” Colosimo said. “But there were students in the class willing to translate and we found ways to make it work.”
Muhoza urged other refugee communities to seek their own version of the American dream.
“We must create our own businesses and be our own bosses if we are to provide for our families today and in the future,” she said.
While this was the first of its kind, Colosimo said the success of the program has led them to focus on different minority communities, including Hispanic, Black, women and veteran-owned businesses.
Colosimo is also currently teaching this curriculum at the state prison to a group of inmates.
“We’re really trying to identify different populations like that, that would benefit from starting their own business because they may have other roadblocks to employment, or they just want to chase their own American dream,” Colosimo said.
You can find out more on how to register for classes on The Mill’s website.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct attributions in the the 23rd, 24th and 25th paragraphs.