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Starting Over with Start-Up Help
|Photo courtesy Contra Costa Times
Farhana Huq, J98, is leaving her mark
on poverty by helping immigrant and refugee women learn business
The ravages of poverty on a distant continent left their mark
on Farhana Huq when as a child she visited her father’s
native Bangladesh. “Coming from a place where we have
so much to one of the poorest countries in the world changes
you. It humbles you,” said Huq, the 28-year-old daughter
of Asian immigrants who grew up in the relative affluence of
New Jersey. “It gives you a different perspective on
While studying economics and philosophy at Tufts, Huq searched
for ways to step into the breach. She discovered microenterprise—a
philosophy pioneered in the mid-1970s by Bangladeshi economist
Muhammad Yunus, whose Grameen Bank has made millions of successful
small loans to lift people out of poverty through entrepreneurship.
Now Huq is leaving her mark on poverty by creating what she
said is one of the nation’s first programs to help low-income
immigrant and refugee women simultaneously learn the basics
of starting a business while improving their English skills.
Here in Oakland, California’s eastern flatlands amid
the bustle of one of the nation’s most ethnically and
culturally diverse communities and the babel of 40 languages,
Huq helps these women from all over the world realize their
Horatio Alger–fueled dreams.
Huq said her nonprofit, Creating Economic Opportunities for
Women (C.E.O. Women), builds on the same drive and discipline
that bring immigrants and refugees to the United States in
hopes of working their way up the economic rungs.
“We are foreigners. We don’t know much about the
business over here,” said Komal Rattan, a 56-year-old
Indian immigrant and mother of three who works two part-time
jobs, runs a catering business, and plans to open a child-care
center in her home. “C.E.O. Women is constantly helping
me,” she said.
The organization, which began nearly five years ago with a
$1,000 check from a philanthropist, now has an annual budget
of nearly a half million dollars and a growing track record.
Out of 21 graduates, 76 percent either started a small business
or found employment, and 50 percent showed marked improvement
in their English skills. In all, C.E.O. Women has helped more
than 200 low-income women, from El Salvador to Kenya, many
of whom were unemployed and had little education, few of whom
had any experience in the American business world.
C.E.O. Women recently launched a program with West Contra Costa
Adult Education and is fielding similar requests from organizations
and schools around the state. Through an alliance with the
Oakland Adult Education, C.E.O. Women gets free rent and access
to English-as-a-second-language teachers for its programs.
“What we are doing is building the training tools, the
modules, and the framework for how to serve this population
and get them into the economic mainstream,” said Huq,
who hopes C.E.O. Women can train 150 more women this year.
Huq brings the same vigor to this microenterprise mission that
she does to her swift footwork and pirouettes in dance performances
of Kathak, a form of North Indian classical dance. The door
to her tiny office, located one flight up from the aromatic
kitchen of a Thai restaurant and a noisy, smoke-filled Asian
café, is always open to students. Any immigrant woman
with a certain proficiency in English, a business idea, and
some experience in her chosen field is eligible for the programs
that teach everything from basic math and computer skills to
the formal and informal rules of doing business in America.
“No one is a number. Farhana knows everyone’s story
from beginning to end,” said Lori Barra, executive director
of the Isabel Allende Foundation, which in 2004 recognized
C.E.O. Women’s efforts at a private awards ceremony. “She
helps them take every small step.”
The inspiration to help immigrant women create their own jobs
and become their own bosses came from Huq’s family. After
a troubled marriage left her destitute, Huq’s aunt supported
three children by opening a beauty salon in her living room.
Microenterprises often begin at home. They are small businesses
that start with less than $35,000 and employ five or fewer
people. But they make up a vital part of the economy. There
are more than 20 million microenterprises in the United States,
with more than 2 million owned by low-income entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurship can turn into a one-way ticket to financial
independence. A five-year study that tracked low-income entrepreneurs
found that more than half had household gains large enough
to lift them out of poverty, with family income nearly doubling
in most households.
Amanda Feinstein, program officer with the Walter and Elise
Haas Fund, which recently gave C.E.O. Women an $80,000 grant,
applauds the organization’s “Shine Your Brilliance” seminars
in which students host workshops to showcase and test market
their talents to the public, and a business coaching program
that pairs immigrants with successful businesswomen.
“I was impressed by their focus on empowering immigrant
women to realize their dreams,” Feinstein said.
Take Wen-Fei Hsu. This 31-year-old Taiwanese immigrant used
to weep out of frustration after immigrating to the United
States three and a half years ago. She had to drop out of art
school because she couldn’t understand the teachers or
the assignments. Her attempts to start her own business foundered
because she couldn’t figure out the rules. “It
was all so hard. I felt like a baby again,” she said.
Through C.E.O. Women’s training programs, Hsu improved
her English and learned everything from how to get a business
license to how to market her business.
When she graduated from the program in June, C.E.O. Women paired
Hsu with a business coach, Barra, who was a graphic designer
before she joined the Isabel Allende Foundation. “Wen-Fei
does three times what any of us does, and yet she is tireless.
She never complains,” Barra said. “She is so eager
Now Hsu is building a portfolio, interning at a magazine, taking
a full course load to get her master’s degree in fine
art, and teaching Chinese to support herself. When she gets
her design studio off the ground, she plans to donate 20 percent
of the proceeds to C.E.O. Women.
“I feel more strong than before, and I feel more confident
than before,” Hsu said. “I don’t cry