COMMUNITY VOICES | Low price tags and high quality not limited to end of season sales

Haiyen and Neeson Vang met when they were just fifteen years old, while growing up in Minneapolis off of Lake Street during the 90s.  The neighborhood was run down and crime was commonplace.  Haiyen and Neeson experienced the effects of that environment.  “We were the children from a neighborhood that was a bit forgotten,” Neeson said.   Haiyen adds, “As teenagers we both skipped school…we gave our parents a hard time and didn’t do what we should have done.”However, rather than simply accepting the barriers they faced from growing up in a ‘forgotten neighborhood,’ they began to imagine possibilities for making a better life for themselves and for their community. Haiyen and Neeson remember, “We used to sit and dream together.  We used to take the bus or drive around looking at big houses and dream about building a business where not only were we making money so that we could pay our bills and raise a family, but we’re also giving  back.” They also recall some of the challenges of growing up with very little money, “we never shopped regular price; everything was from the clearance rack!”  However, items from the clearance rack at many stores are those that are going out of fashion.   They mapped out a unique concept: a store with all new, trendy items where nothing was over $10.When they came up with the idea, Haiyen and Neeson had left high school before graduation and were working in retail.  Haiyen worked at a small business selling women’s clothing and Neeson worked in loss prevention for a major retailer.  They didn’t know where to start.  Then they heard about an upcoming small business training class near their home, in North Minneapolis.  In the spring of 2004, they applied to an early version of NDC’s Plan it! An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Success class being offered in partnership with Northside Economic Opportunities Network (NEON).  From that class, they built the foundation to start and grow The Clearance Rack.Later in the fall of 2004, Haiyen and Neeson Vang received a loan from NDC and opened their first store in the neighborhood they knew best, the Phillips Neighborhood, off of Lake Street.  Since then they have opened four additional stores throughout the Twin Cities metro area.  Today, they provide jobs for more than 20 employees and are able to offer full-time employees benefits like paid time off and training. Neeson says, “It’s a blessing for kids who grew up every day having nothing.  We beat the odds!”They continue to dream and are now discussing the possibility of expanding The Clearance Rack beyond Minnesota into other states.  Haiyen and Neeson discuss the possibility of expanding to a warmer state with laughs, stating it would be good, “just so there’ll be a good reason to visit during the cold months here.”“We came to NDC with bad credit, no education…and they believed in our idea and they believed in us—most importantly they believed in us,” Haiyen concludes. Continue Reading

COMMUNITY VOICES | Mississippi Mushrooms: Where Mushrooms, social justice and economics meet

What do mushrooms, social justice, and economics have in common? The connection might not seem apparent at first, but Ian Silver-Ramp is happy to connect the dots with some creative thinking and a healthy appetite for entrepreneurship.Ian, who studied agriculture at the University of Minnesota, farmed on a cocoa plantation in Costa Rica, and worked with a major pesticide company for a stint, started off Mississippi Mushrooms with little more than the seed of an idea.Despite ample farming experience, Ian didn’t know mushrooms or the ins and outs of starting a small business. He simply knew he wanted the work he did to be consistent his values. “When I first decided I was going to open Mississippi Mushrooms and make a company, I didn’t know anything. I hadn’t even ever successfully fruited a mushroom,” remembers Ian.So, in the spring of 2012, when he heard about Neighborhood Development Center’s Plan it! Continue Reading

COMMUNITY VOICES | From near bankruptcy to business owner

“When I started driving, I basically had nothing left.  I was going into foreclosure at that time and I was only making some bills, some not.  Whatever savings I had, I had used already,” Syed Hassan said, reflecting on what owning his own cab has meant for him.Syed was born in Pakistan and came to Minnesota when the company he was working for in the U.K. offered him a job in the Twin Cities.  Excited to start a new life here with his wife and two children, Syed purchased a home and began to settle into the Midwest.  Within a year, storm clouds were gathering on the horizon.  The company began closing down offices, including Syed’s.  They offered to relocate him, but since Syed owned a house he said, “ No, I’ll stay…I’ll find a job.”Syed is a thoughtful and meticulous planner and approached his job search with vigor.  But he struggled to find work in a flagging economy, “A few days, months, then on and on and on, and I’m down to my last buck.”  Without many options, and knowing he had to help provide for his family, he decided he couldn’t wait anymore and started driving cabs.After a year of renting a cab, driving for Airport Taxi and struggling with the $600 weekly taxi rental fee, Syed was ready for a change.  In 2009, he heard about NDC’s Plan it! entrepreneur training program, offered in partnership with Northside Economic Opportunities Network (NEON), and decided to take the class with the intention of opening a restaurant.  Once Syed was enrolled and began studying, he realized that the capital requirement for a restaurant was too high.  Like a true entrepreneur, he readjusted his plan.He decided to continue driving a cab but purchased his own to make it truly profitable.  By owning his own cab, Syed could save the $600 weekly fee for renting.    In 2010, he came to NDC to borrow $10,000, “When I went for the loan, my credit was shot down.  Big time.  NDC supported me at that time.  They could understand what happened, and how I explained it.  They understood, they gave me the loan, they took a chance on me.”When Syed came to NDC, his credit score was in the low five hundreds but the chance NDC took was not misplaced.  He not only paid off his loan, but did so early by making weekly instead of monthly payments.  He propelled his credit score 170 points to the high six hundreds.Syed is now contemplating his next steps.  He is still exploring the restaurant idea, but for now, he is saving money and continuing to drive taxi.  He reasons, “if something is going smoothly, why stop it.”  Syed will purchase a new taxi to meet city requirements this year and has come back to NDC, “I preferred NDC because if you had somebody with you in your crisis, you try to give them business after.” Continue Reading

COMMUNITY VOICES | Dog Soldier Mixed Martial Arts: Making a difference

Tan, rust, brick and mortar walls stand tall in the historic south Minneapolis building where Dog Soldier MMA lies tucked away.  Peer into former stable windows and you can see into a world within a world where learning to stand tall is about much more than physical fitness. Vaughn Lodge opened Dog Soldier MMA in March 2013, but the story started long before, in Little Earth.  Little Earth is an urban housing complex in south Minneapolis which provides affordable housing with Native preference.   Over a year ago, tension was building among different groups within the Native Community.  Lodge remembers, “People were coming to me and saying my daughter has been attacked, or my granddaughter has been sold into the sex trade…and for me it was like, what can I do to make a difference?  What can I do to make a difference?” It didn’t take long for Lodge to decide—He had years of experience in mixed martial arts and knew that this was something he could share, something that would help.  He volunteered to teach self defense classes at Little Earth and, from there, the classes blossomed into a structured, disciplined program for more than fifty young people.  Lodge realized he wanted to do this full time: to open a gym, but keep it community based.  A friend told him to check out the Plan it! entrepreneur training program happening at BiiGiiWiin in partnership with NDC.  BiiGiiWiin is a branch of the American Indian Community Development Corporation.  Lodge applied and shared his idea: “We come from a warrior culture where, culturally, we fight.  We fight all the time.  You go to a reservation, trust me, you’ll see fights—all the time.”  Lodge wanted to deconstruct the modern trends that commercialize gangsterism and objectify women.  “How do we change that back to our traditional values?” asked Lodge. Thus came Dog Soldier MMA.  Dog Soldier was actually a Cheyenne warrior society from the plains, “They were the most feared warriors in all the plains…because they had a code,” Lodge stated. BiiGiiWiin and NDC welcomed Lodge into the Plan it! program.  He learned fast, developed a business plan and found a location to lease.  With NDC’s help he accessed pro bono legal assistance to review his lease and worked with his landlord to convert the space into a gym.  He now has three different payment plans for classes offered twice a day.  Dog Soldier MMA is growing but Lodge has not forgotten his roots.  He continues to waive tuition for his high school students who cannot pay on the condition that they maintain a 2.5 GPA, 80% attendance and complete 20 hours of verifiable community service.  “It’s a fine balance between what you give the community and then what you take for yourself,” Lodge noted.  Lodge is learning to manage the balance well!  Continue Reading