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Tuesday, November 12, 2013 - 12:00pm

Refugee To Entrepreneur: Micro-lending In Georgia's Global Village

Many entrepreneurs hope to strike it rich. But a group of them in a small community outside of Atlanta are working on a smaller scale. They are refugees starting businesses to serve Clarkston's global village.

Mahendra Dahal and his family run a grocery store in Clarkston that sells food and other traditional items from his native Bhutan.

One day this month, Dahal showed a visitor around the store as music from his home country played over the speakers.

“These are cumin seeds, which make your food tasty and spicy,” he said.

The 27-year-old became an American citizen this month. But he doesn’t have much time to celebrate. In addition to helping run the family store, he works a full-time job at a manufacturing company.

And he recently had an idea for another business: a Laundromat. He knew there was a need. Many Clarkston residents are immigrants like him who don’t drive and live in apartments without washers and dryers.

“They need to walk long distances, more than two miles, three miles, to wash their clothes,” he said, adding it wasn’t convenient.

To get the idea off the ground, Dahal took a course for entrepreneurs earlier this year. It was sponsored jointly by the Goizueta Business School and a Clarkston community group called CDF: A Collective Action Initiative.

With a central location, the Laundromat is a hit. Dahal has since sold it to focus on the grocery store and his day job. Pausing in one of the store aisles, he says what he thinks the letters U-S-A stand for.

“U - Start – Again,” he said. “So it means you start your life again. So now I’m starting my life again.”

The course for entrepreneurs is unusual for several reasons. For starters, it takes place in Clarkston, home of the International Rescue Committee. The relief organization relocates refugees from all around the world to this small Georgia town.

And it uses micro-lending, a concept pioneered not in America, but rather in countries in the developing world – where the refugees come from.

“It’s community development from an organizational standpoint. It’s community development from an individual standpoint,” said Chris Thompson with CDF, the community group. “And along the way we’re accelerating entrepreneurial enterprise in Clarkston.”

Thompson and Emory professor Peter Roberts run the course and are now fielding applications for the second class.

At Emory, Roberts works with Social Enterprise @ Goizueta , the intersection where doing well and doing good meet. He teaches the budding entrepreneurs the accounting behind running a business. And he said he spends a lot of time “making the entrepreneurs sufficiently numerate. As the lenders put it, ‘Don’t make us better at your numbers than you are’.”

Thompson says the course is helping the entrepreneurs chart their own path. Many of the refugees have escaped war and famine in their native countries. He says they’ve been at the mercy of others.

“Probably the most powerful thing I would hear week in and week out from the individuals that were participating in this program were simply the words, ‘My name is. I own blank’,” he said.

And last but not least, there’s the money. The students compete for three $10,000 loans.

Samia Mohamed received one of the loans. In an interview at the Clarkston Community Center, a focal point for immigrants in the area, she said the class helped her do something she’d been dreaming about for years: start an interpretation service.

“I speak Somalian, Arabic, Swahili, American Sign Language, Urdu, Hindi and Spanish,” she said.

Her clients now include many area hospitals and courts. She says she was grateful for the loan. But she points out something else she gained:

“I believe the key is the networking,” she said. “Knowing who your neighbor is. Knowing anyone and everyone who might affect your business. And always talk about your business. It’s a dream that no one can take away.”

And Thompson and Roberts, the program’s organizers, think Clarkston isn't the only place with latent entrepreneurs who have dreams. They’re in talks to replicate the program in other communities in Georgia.