Saida Omar dreams of one day opening a salon in St. Cloud, Minn., and a new program launched this spring is designed to help her accomplish that.

The Enterprise Academy, a pilot program started by the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation, aims to help members of the East African community in St. Cloud start small businesses. The 12-week program, which wrapped up earlier this month, is modeled after a Twin Cities program that helped launch Mercado Central off Lake Street in 1997 and Midtown Global Market.

"This is part of a system of support," said Jeff Wig, the foundation's vice president for economic and business development. "Everybody [in the community] benefits."

Omar was one of eight people who completed the program, which included business planning and one-on-one coaching. Participants are also eligible for up to $50,000 in foundation loans to launch or grow their business. Funded largely by grants from Wells Fargo, the program partnered with Twin Cities-based Neighborhood Development Center, which has trained thousands of people and has helped start small businesses.

While an estimated 10,000 East Africans call St. Cloud and the surrounding area home, only about 50 East African-run businesses are located there, according to the Initiative Foundation.

"The goal is to increase that," Wig said, adding that many of the program attendees had run businesses in Africa, but faced new challenges in starting one in the U.S. "We knew there was good energy to capitalize on."

He added that he was impressed by the strong work ethic of the attendees, many of whom juggle full-time jobs while raising families and starting or running a business.

Abshiro Hussein Mayow, a 24-year-old who works while attending graduate school at St. Cloud State University, is applying for medical school and developing a plan to open a medical scribe company after working in the field.

"I saw the need," she said. "I have a passion for better community health."

She added that the Enterprise Academy taught her many things and helped her make connections.

The Initiative Foundation is planning a second academy this fall in St. Cloud and hopes to expand the program in 2019 to other financially disadvantaged groups who don't normally have access to business-planning education in central Minnesota.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141