African immigrant entrepreneurs aim to transform Brooklyn Center strip mall 

A Black woman in a red jacket poses for a portrait.
Jannie Seibure is part of the Ignite Business Women Investment Group. In the spring, Seibure will be operating her travel agency out of a currently vacant store in the strip mall.
Sarah Thamer | MPR News

Part of the ceiling is missing and wires sit on the floor next to a ladder. Jannie Seibure stood in the center of the mostly empty space and smiled at what the outdated mall will soon become.

“At the front of the store, we're going to have a showcase of travel accessories… your luggages, your backpacks, your pillows, you name it, we're going to have a lot of good stuff to meet your travel needs,” she said. 

Seibure, who is Liberian, has been operating her travel agency Cavalla Travel & Tours out of a tall office building in Brooklyn Center. 

She says for the first time, she’ll have her own store front at Shingle Creek Center where people can easily access her services and products. Seibure says after many years, her business will finally be visible to anyone walking by. 

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With the help of the state, various investors and support from city council leaders, the strip mall will provide incubator space that is affordable and appropriate for small and micro businesses. It’s a breakthrough move for women working to open up opportunities in the Minneapolis suburb.

Seibure, who is also part of the Ignite Business Women Investment Group, recalls the many setbacks and challenges she faced while navigating an often complicated and unforgiving system that felt discriminatory. 

“Most of the retail spaces, people don't want to rent to us. Even though it's out in our own city. We are business owners, we're going to pay our rent. But we found out that people probably don't want us to grow as business owners,” Seibure said. “We had the power to do it as business leaders, we just had to stand firm and see what we can do. So the group of ladies, we came together.”

a Black woman in a blue dress poses for a portrait
Nelima Sitati Munene is the executive director of African Career, Education and Resources, or ACER. She stands in what will soon be ACER's new office in the Shingle Creek Center.
Sarah Thamer | MPR News

Nelima Sitati Munene, who is originally from Nairobi, Kenya, is the executive director of African Career, Education and Resources, or ACER. The organization will soon be headquartered in the strip mall.  

She, along with the Ignite Business Women Investment Group, purchased the Brooklyn Center strip mall to transform it into what they say will be a model of economic inclusion and innovation. 

Munene said the $5.2 million purchase of the strip mall was inspired by the growth of businesses run by African immigrants in the western Twin Cities suburbs. The strip mall is currently about 60 percent occupied. According to ACER, the businesses currently operating in the strip mall will remain. New businesses are set to open in the spring.

She said the development will allow her and others to continue pushing for policies that uproot economic exclusion and create generational wealth in African diaspora communities.

“We discovered that we have a lot of micro-business owners in our communities. And then we began to look at the spaces in which they operate,” Munene said, noting the businesses were spread out in office buildings, adding to their disconnection from others in the community.

“We made it our mission because we had engaged our communities and had clearly articulated what their dreams and aspirations were around this development, we really wanted to make it a reality for them,” she said.

a sign that reads shingle creek center
Local African entrepreneurs will transform The Shingle Creek center in Brooklyn Center into a hub for small businesses.
Sarah Thamer | MPR News

That reality came into focus when Munene and local entrepreneurs discovered just how critical African immigrants were to the economic life of suburbs, including Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park. 

“And when we began to ask people ‘how did they get into business?’ Everybody had very interesting stories — I refinanced my home, I borrowed from my family, my son, you know, cashed out his 401(k) to support me. And so we discovered our businesses were not getting resources.”

Since the early 2000s, the number of African immigrants in Minnesota has increased from almost 35,000 to close to 90,000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

The state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development reports the largest number of African immigrants in Minnesota are from eastern Africa, most notably Somalia and Ethiopia; followed by western Africa with 32,500 residents, with the largest numbers from Liberia and Nigeria.

An estimated 4,500 African immigrants from Somalia, Liberia and Nigeria live in the northwest suburbs.

Munene and Seibure say the Brooklyn Center strip mall will be a place for the business owners, by the business owners. 

“The world will be able to see us more, not by the color of our skin, to know that we are business leaders, strong business women with a lot of energy, who really want to do more. So, it's kind of exciting for us,” Seibure said.