A tax preparer in a shirt and tie dropped in on Bulbulo Mohamud’s cafe last week and said he believes it’s better for women to stay home and take care of children.
Mohamud, a mother of three in a red and black headscarf whose husband travels for work, poured a drink and looked at the man sideways. He was half-grinning, goading her. A European soccer game droned on a TV in the corner.
“You’re trying to make me mad,” she said.
It was an odd venue to argue for stay-at-home motherhood. Women who own businesses are driving the growth of Karmel Square at the corner of Pillsbury Avenue and Lake Street. The mall is probably the largest collection of Somali businesses in the U.S.
What began as a warren of stalls and storefronts in an old machine shop has grown into a second, four-story building along the Midtown Greenway. Inside are 175 clothing shops, hair salons, henna shops, restaurants and even a mosque. All but 25 are owned by women.
The mall is the scene of a rich paradox in Somali culture. The women who run the shops cover their heads, and many of them believe it is a man’s responsibility to pay bills for the family. Yet they are aggressive businesspeople, cherish financial independence and preside over a microeconomy at the core of the Twin Cities’ Somali community.
“Our man does not control us as people think. It’s not like that. We are free to do anything,” said Mohamud, who opened her cafe there four months ago. “If we decide to achieve something and make it clear, we can.”
Ubah Diriye grew up in Seattle from age 4, where her family settled in public housing in the 1990s. “It was very hard for my mother and father,” she said. “We started from the bottom.”
She dressed like a Westerner before moving to Minneapolis three years ago. Now she wears a headscarf and designs and sells clothes that aim to blend modesty and fashion. It’s a small shop and she has no regular employees, but she creates her own designs and has them manufactured in China. She supports herself with the shop and is looking for other businesses to start.
“I’m after the American dream,” she said.
A business mind-set
The owner of Karmel Square, Basim Sabri, barged through the maze of corridors spilling over with dresses, shoes and fabric, and proudly announced the owner’s gender at each shop he passed.
“Woman, woman, woman, woman, woman!” Sabri said.
He charmed his way past tenants and their customers, pressing shoulders, dishing out compliments, always moving. He told a father his young daughter was beautiful, called older women “Mama” and fended off conversations with shop owners. “They’re very aggressive,” he whispered.
A woman stopped him outside her clothing store and asked for another window onto the corridor.
“OK, sister, it’s on the list,” Sabri said. “It’s not a top priority. Look, you got a beautiful glass, you need a little more glass? We’ll take care of it. Don’t worry. Insha’Allah.”
“OK, OK,” she said.
When Sabri first bought the building 15 years ago, a young Somali man walked in and asked Sabri if he could open a coffee shop there. Sabri liked the man’s face and said yes. The next day, a group of women showed up seeking to open stalls to sell clothing to other Somalis.
So many women were interested that he had them draw numbers out of a bucket to decide who went where. Most of the original tenants remain in their spots.
“In my opinion, they’re the smartest businesspeople in Africa, probably the smartest in the Middle East,” Sabri said. “Women play a big role in Somali business doing.”
An entrepreneurial culture
The state’s strong job market and the self-reinforcing attraction of the Twin Cities area as home to one-fourth of the U.S. Somali population have created a cycle of population growth. More Somalis, like Diriye, arrive from other U.S. cities each year.
Census estimates put Minnesota’s Somali population at 39,000 in 2013, but that figure is probably low, because the Somali diaspora in the U.S. is still so new and fluid. In 2012, few had been in Minnesota for more than 10 years, many didn’t speak English well and the population was growing fast. Nearly half — around 16,000 — of the estimated population depended on welfare of some kind, according to the Minnesota demographer’s office.
But that was a small fraction of the 1.2 million Minnesotans who receive public assistance, and the Somali job picture is improving. Unemployment dropped from about 20 percent in 2010 to 6 percent in 2013, according to Susan Brower, the state demographer.
Somali women have turned en masse to entrepreneurship in part out of necessity, said Osman Ahmed, who manages the Riverside Mall — where 37 of 44 businesses are owned by women — in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside area.
Some feel they can’t get hired by others because of cultural barriers. Others picked up skills going into business on their own before they moved to the U.S., during turmoil in Somalia in the 1990s.
“After the civil war, there were no jobs, the government collapsed, there was no money,” Ahmed said. “Somali women started helping the men more.”
The roots of female Somali entrepreneurship run deeper than the civil war, said Amallina Ali, the owner of a beauty salon that just moved into new space at Karmel Square.
In Somalia, women have long performed many of the same jobs as men — raising livestock, cultivating crops — even while caring for their children, she said. And a culture where polygamy was widely accepted has, for generations, pounded into women the need to be financially self-sufficient, she said.
“That’s in our head. We want to depend on ourselves,” Ali said. “Mothers will teach their daughters to do everything.”
Starting up without a bank
To do it, like business owners anywhere, they need money and they need to balance work and home.
Even a small clothing shop requires $20,000 in start-up cash, said Ahmed at the Riverside Mall, the building with the leopards painted on it next to a light-rail station.
Because of Islamic strictures against paying or earning interest, Somali entrepreneurs must find ways to raise start-up capital other than from a bank loan. Many rely on family members and their community.
Ali’s husband gave her some of the money she needed to start her business, and Sabri gave her a good deal after his own sister told him Ali’s concept was promising.
“I got a break for rent, designing the whole place on his expense, everything,” said Ali. “I know he’s a big guy now and he owns everything, but when things go heated, I always remember the beginnings. I’m always appreciative of that.”
Ali believes local banks are missing an opportunity by not tailoring finance to Muslim businesses. Views on what constitutes an acceptable financial product vary across the Muslim world, but to Ali it’s simple.
“If you have a fixed-rate loan, you can charge me whatever you want and precalculate it, and say because of this, this is how much money I’m making on this deal,” she said. “The banks could sell anything they want, at any price, just precalculate your thing and let me know.”
Mohamud, the new cafe owner in Karmel Square, came to the U.S. as a 13-year-old and landed in Memphis. She moved to Minneapolis in 2000, married and had children, and opened a clothing accessories store at the 24th Street Mall.
She learned how to make customers feel welcome, but the business was not successful. She let her mother take over, and she opened her own coffee shop instead. The business did better and, after Karmel Square expanded, she moved to a corner space in its new wing.
Managing all of her responsibilities is a challenge, she said, but her family helps by watching her children.
“If you don’t have a support group, you’re not going to succeed,” she said. “Every business you see has a support group of family.”
Somali in America
Mohamud is happy to run a business, and is protective of that. Still, she considers her husband the breadwinner and is happy to bow to that expectation of Somali life.
“It’s different in our culture and you guys’ culture. You guys, if you bring money to the house and she does, you pay things together, right?” she said. “Ours, no, unless he’s really broke. If there is a financial problem, he can’t provide, she will help him out, but always he’s the breadwinner. Always. It’s a good responsibility. It’s good to have that, because when he married you he took that responsibility.”
Ali, the salon owner at Karmel Square, said Somali businesses are growing in Minnesota because the state has been good to Somalis.
A few years ago she flew for a visit to Egypt, where her family first settled after fleeing Somalia. She shed tears of joy when the plane landed. But then something funny happened: Egyptian culture kept rubbing against her American expectations.
“The American in me is inside,” she said. “I want good customer service. I want justice.”
As she landed back in the U.S. on the return flight, her first thought was “thank God I’m home.” When she hears complaints about the unfairness of American society, it strikes her as odd, given the unfairness and injustice she has witnessed elsewhere.
“Why we are a superpower is the justice, equality. It does not exist anywhere. That’s why we do well here,” she said. “It might not be 100 percent, but we have the best on this planet. I don’t care what anyone says.”