Lessons from Somali Entrepreneurs

How They Are Transforming the Economic Landscape of Minneapolis

It had been a long day at work, and between a poor international phone connection and less than specific instructions from my friend on the other end of the line, I was losing patience.

“It’s the Somali bank. Just find the Somali place that does money transfers.”

Dobuol was in South Sudan and trying, unsuccessfully, to explain exactly which company I should use to wire money he had electronically transferred into my account earlier that day. This wasn’t the first time he had asked me to transfer money since he’d left for Juba. I had used Western Union the previous time, but he had quickly realized he was losing a lot of money on the exchange and I was paying too much for the service.

But after being in the city for a few weeks, he had heard talk of a Somali money transfer company that would give him dollars in South Sudan at twice the exchange rate he was getting through Western Union. Sure enough, after a little asking around in the Somali plaza, a mini market of Somali businesses near where I was living in Atlanta, I found Dahabshiil.

It was a superior business in every way. The service fee was about half of what Western Union charged, Dobuol got a better exchange rate, the transfer happened quicker, and the salespeople were friendlier. I continued using Dahabshiil even when I moved back to Minnesota, as it wasn’t hard to find their counterpart in Minneapolis.

Minnesota has the highest population of Somali people of any state in the United States, and Minneapolis the most of any city in Minnesota. The Somali community is so concentrated in Minneapolis, that one neighborhood has come to be known as Little Mogadishu, after the capital city of Somalia.

Like any recognized region, what makes Little Mogadishu so renowned isn’t just the sheer number of Somalis in the area, but the wealth of businesses it supports. This area contains two exclusively Somali malls and at least 375 Somali owned businesses—pretty impressive for a population that has only been living in the area for a little over ten years.

So what makes Somalis such successful entrepreneurs?

Various cultural traits unique to Somalis have a significant influence on both their business practices and success as entrepreneurs.

One marked difference between Somali immigrants and other Minnesota business owners is their devout adherence to the beliefs and practices of Islam. A recent survey, conducted out of the University of Minnesota, titled Achieving Success in Business: A Comparison of Somali and American-Born Entrepreneurs in Minneapolis, found that 98.9% of Somalis described their religious beliefs as ‘extremely important’ whereas only 48.9% of non-migrants surveyed expressed this level of commitment to their faith and 15.6% reported their religious beliefs to be ‘not important at all’.

Many Muslims, Somalis included, believe that Islam strongly discourages or even strictly prohibits the use of credit or accepting loans that include the payment of interest. Obviously, this belief has a significant impact on how Somalis must go about funding their businesses.

Luckily for Somalis, Minnesota has the highest number of immigrants as a result of second-migration than any other state and is home to several organizations and nonprofits that work to provide loans and ways of financing that are sensitive to those of varying cultural backgrounds. Thus, Somalis have the opportunity to start businesses without having to worry about large loan and interest payments haunting them years into the future.

Another way Somalis look to fund a business endeavor and achieve success in a shrinking economy is through their close ties and networking with other Somalis.

As my friend Mohamed once explained to me, Somalis know anyone and everyone. That was a hindrance to him as a particularly wild teenager, but it is extremely beneficial when it comes to business. Due to their incredibly social and charismatic nature, Somalis have no trouble finding both other Somalis that can serve as business partners and customers who are willing to buy their products.

The same U of M survey discovered that the suppliers of products sold at numerous Somali stores were actually other Somali businessmen.

Sometimes in the ferociously competitive business culture of the United States, we often forget that working together and helping other aspiring business owners can actually have a positive effect on our own financial goals. Though loans are at times unavoidable, with a little creativity when it comes to financing we can avoid dooming ourselves to decades of debt.

If current and aspiring business owners took a lesson from the Somalis, everyone would benefit. And if you are looking for suggestions, just stop by Lake Street, Minneapolis. I guarantee a smiling Somali business owner will talk your ear off, try to sell you something, introduce you to other cheery entrepreneurs and become a fast friend.

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Erin O'Neill About Erin O'Neill

Erin is a multilingual, insatiably curious, life-long learner who enjoys athletics, traveling, and writing about things that matter. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinONeill34.

5 comments
nothingtosayexcepttoyou
nothingtosayexcepttoyou

Clearly you've never lived near any Somali individuals, please move downtown Minneapolis and still support this "culture". Interesting that their religious views prevent them from paying interest, yet it is acceptable to drive with their cell phones held up by their turbans.

mo7amed7ared
mo7amed7ared

Where does religion fit in this? lol. This person is so lonely.

Fyall
Fyall

@nothingtosayexcepttoyou

Ok... that was long but pointless.