Tashitaa Tufaa, whose walk to school in his native Ethiopia was a 10-mile round trip in bare feet, now sees to the safe transit of thousands of schoolchildren daily as president and CEO of Fridley-based Metropolitan Transportation Network Inc.
After starting 10 years ago with just a taxi and his wife's minivan, Tufaa has built the school transit firm into a growing company with more than 200 employees, nearly 300 buses and more than $12 million in revenue last year.
That success, and the hard work and humility with which he has achieved it, have helped earn Tufaa recognition as the 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year by the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA). The Minneapolis-based nonprofit offers minority entrepreneurs services including business consulting, financing and leadership development programs.
"It means a lot to me," said Tufaa, who will receive the award on Wednesday at MEDA's annual recognition luncheon. "When you do something and you get recognized, sometimes you don't believe it. I don't have words to accept it."
On the family farm where he grew up, Tufaa was one of 14 siblings. Each received a special challenge from their father. Tufaa's was to go without shoes, although his family could have afforded them, until he was in ninth grade. Walking barefoot, Tufaa said, and working on the farm after school underscored the importance his parents placed on work, honesty and education. The 5-mile walk to school was unavoidable: There were no buses to ride.
"My vision is to run a very successful business that would never stop even when I am not around," said Tufaa, who is in his late 40s and has five children, ages 4 to 16. "To have a business that has healthy growth over time, you have to have a good foundation and good management, and that's what MEDA is helping me with."
MEDA has helped launch more than 480 enterprises since business and community leaders founded the organization in 1971. It has served more than 19,000 clients and secured more than $115 million in financing for minority-owned businesses. Its annual survey reports that the minority business community it serves represents $1.2 billion in annual revenue and employs more than 7,800 Minnesotans, about half of them minorities.
Tufaa arrived in Minneapolis as a refugee in 1992 and began studying political science at the University of Minnesota. His first job here was as a hotel dishwasher. He began driving buses while he was a student and continued on nights and weekends as he worked for a school district and then for the city of Minneapolis.
He decided to start Metropolitan Transportation Network after he lost the city job. The work combines his love of the Twin Cities metro area with his deep knowledge of its roads and neighborhoods.
Metropolitan Transportation Network began providing bus service to Beacon Academy Charter School in Maple Grove several years ago, after the previous provider went out of business in the middle of the school year, principal Jordan Ford said. About 300 of the school's 423 students ride the company's buses each day.
"One of the things that I liked about him was that his handshake was his word," Ford said. "Tashitaa is very responsive. We've watched his company grow and yet he's been able to stay close to his mission of serving the student."
One challenge that Tufaa has faced was his reluctance to take on debt to boost his company's cash flow. MEDA business consultant Patrick Pariseau and others persuaded him to take out a $2.5 million Small Business Administration loan to establish the company's new headquarters in Fridley.
MEDA also has helped him see the need to round out his leadership team. In recent months, Tufaa has hired a general manager, a business manager, an accountant and a human resources manager. He plans to spend more of his time on marketing efforts for the company, which has grown largely through referrals.
The marketing push will have two objectives, Tufaa said. He will be striving to sign up additional school districts to drive new student transit business, but he's also planning a further expansion into public transportation and is weighing the possibility of taking on more debt to fuel that move.
"He's got drive," Pariseau, the MEDA consultant, said of Tufaa. "He thinks that if you give him an opportunity, he will make it succeed. When you start putting people to work like he does — 200-plus jobs — that's a significant impact on the state of Minnesota."
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is email@example.com.