Three years ago, a group of 16 high school- and college-age women, daughters of East African immigrants to Minnesota, decided they wanted to make money and learn how to run a business.
The group called themselves the Sisterhood of the Traveling Scarf, a nod to the book about teenage girlfriends and a pair of magical pants. In their weekly meetings, they mainly talked about the challenges in the Cedar-Riverside community of Minneapolis where they live.
After seeing a group of teenage boys in their neighborhood start a coffee cart as a business, the sisterhood began to think of ideas for a venture of their own. But they made little progress until last year, when an AmeriCorps volunteer named Laurine Chang, a student at the University of Minnesota, learned about them.
“For these girls, having the opportunity to have anything on their résumé saying they have work experience is important,” Chang said.
Chang organized an effort to fund and find space for the Sisterhood of the Traveling Scarf store, which opened Feb. 28 at the African Development Center at 1931 S. 5th St.
“At first, we had difficulty finding space because it’s such a dense and populated area,” Chang said, referring to the Riverside Plaza, a grouping of six buildings that has 1,303 residential units.
“We even volunteered at other thrift shops to learn how to run ours,” said Nasteho Farah, a member of the sisterhood since its creation in 2010.
After a long search, they obtained a 210-square-foot office for $425 a month at the African Development Center. Immediately, they began setting up shop, which included furnishing the room and attaching price tags to the more than 1,000 articles of clothing they had collected. To stock inventory for the store’s opening, each girl set up a donation box at her school.
As the thrift shop project progressed, it attracted the eyes of others who could help.
Mary True, director of community engagement at Augsburg College, learned about the young women and their business in 2013. She began soliciting help at Augsburg.
She had Augsburg MBA students draft the business plan and recruited graphic design students to make fliers — along the way, teaching the girls the nitty-gritty of each process.
The Brian Coyle Community Center offered members of the sisterhood six-month internships to teach the young women about business. The center had offered a similar program to the boys who set up the coffee cart business.
Then a windfall of funding arrived. With the help of the Coyle Center, which is a part of the nonprofit Pillsbury United Communities, grants came in from various sources. The sisterhood’s largest donation was a $68,000 grant from Women Investing in the Next Generation (WINGs), which is part of Greater Twin Cities United Way’s Women Giving program.
True said the WINGs grant covered the overhead costs of the store, including rent and furnishing the store with clothing racks, mirrors, a cash register, a glass display case and a phone. It also pays for staff wages and the young women’s wage of $7.25 an hour.
“It will help drive the launch of the store and promote sustainability of the business,” said Katie Ladas, director of donor engagement at the Greater Twin Cities United Way.
“I’m learning a lot about business, about marketing, communications, customer service,” said Khadra Fiqi, a member of the sisterhood. “It taught me that you can start something from a very small idea and turn it into something big.”
The store, said Amano Dube, director of the Coyle Center, “is a way to address two of their most pressing challenges: finding employment and moving out of poverty.”
The Feb. 28 grand opening drew more than 70 supporters, who at one point were urged by Chang, the AmeriCorps employee, to “take out your cellphone and like our Facebook page,” in hopes of getting more than 300 likes on the store’s Facebook page. And they did.
“The store gives us a sense of belonging in the community and prepares us for the future,” said Farah.
Each young woman was awarded a rose at the grand opening. And Chang — who kept the audience laughing as the event’s emcee — was awarded a bouquet of roses.
“It’s an enterprise packed with clothes and spirit. You can buy the clothes; you can bask in the spirit of the place,” said Martha Stortz, a customer at the thrift shop. “I love what these dynamic women have accomplished.”
President Paul Pribbenow of Augsburg College told the audience, “We are working on a special scholarship program [that] we will be announcing in the next few weeks. That if you intern at this boutique, it will earn you a scholarship at Augsburg College.”
According to the business plan, the store will be self-sustainable within five years.
Bruce Batten, director of Augsburg’s MBA program and whose students drafted the business plan, pointed out that every person in the United States has an immigrant past.
“I think it’s a terrific way to get more people involved in business,” he said.
Steve Fischer is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.