Swedish delegates visit Minnesota to learn from Somali businesses

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The couple of hours of observing and speaking with Somali business people at Karmel Square mall in Minneapolis were enough for Kurt Eliasson and his delegation to be satisfied that their trip all the way from Sweden was made with good reason.

Eliasson and 30 others came to Minnesota on October 1 for a weeklong visit to learn from the success stories of the state’s Somali-American small business entrepreneurs.

“We really are impressed by their entrepreneurial activities in the U.S.,” Eliasson said. “We’re interested in learning the secret behind their success.”

Comprised of local government officials, corporate leaders and academics, the delegates’ mission, they said, is to study the ideas and system that led to the community’s flourishing businesses, which they later hope to apply to 40,000 Somali immigrants in Sweden.

About 70 percent of the Somalis in Sweden are unemployed, said Eliasson, CEO for Swedish Association of Public Housing Companies. There are many regulations on businesses in Sweden, and it’s hard for immigrants to break through.

“This is a problem that we need to address in our government in order for the Somalis to have the freedom to establish businesses, like here,” he said. “If this becomes possible, then they don’t have to be dependent on government assistance.”

As part of its international effort to support the development of the East African diaspora, African Development Center of Minnesota hosted the delegation.

“I feel we’re ambassadors for Minnesota and Somali-Minnesotans this week,” said Hussein Samatar, executive director of the African Development Center. “Because Somalis don’t have an embassy in the U.S., we’re jump starting the idea of Somalia having a consulate office in the state.”

With Minneapolis housing the largest Somali malls in the United States, the community has established more than 2,000 small businesses in Minnesota during the past decade, Samatar said.

On October 2, the delegates chatted with small business owners and operators in Karmel Square mall as they purchased some Somali traditional goods, including short sticks, which are used as toothbrushes in Somalia.

“How is this used?” Swedish Delegate Frederik Anderstedt, asked a store operator of a stick he has just purchased for a dollar.

“You chew on the tip of it; then just brush it on your teeth,” explained the storekeeper.

Before they head back to Sweden on Sunday, the delegates will visit a number of other community business locations, community centers, local banks and institutions.