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Springfield's Minority Business-Owners Face Unique Challenges; Public Entities Set Goals for

Mahmoud Salem at his grocery store, Latino Market, on St. Louis Street in Springfield. (File photo credit: Jennifer Davidson,
Mahmoud Salem at his grocery store, Latino Market, on St. Louis Street in Springfield. (File photo credit: Jennifer Davidson,

Minorities who own a business often face unique challenges because they come from an under-represented part of the population. But one grassroots organization in Springfield is spearheading a movement that tackles those challenges head-on so that a person’s ethnic group, gender, or race no longer play a role in how successful they can become as an entrepreneur. KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson has more.

Mahmoud Salem is serving customers at the Latino Market on St. Louis Street in Springfield.  He’s Egyptian, and he owns the ethnic specialty store with his wife, who’s originally from Colombia in South America. When you walk in the door, you’re greeted with a warm welcome, as well as the scent of spices from across the globe, from Peru to Iraq.  

“It was very hard to start a business because of language.  I need to serve the people here. We have a lot of Hispanic people here in town, and that was very challenging, really for me, to have a business and succeed in it also,” Salem said.

And he has succeeded:  this is his 14th year in business.  He overcame a language barrier. And he overcame another challenge many minority business-owners face:  access to capital.  

After Salem immigrated from Egypt, he worked as a medical technician in New York.  He scrupulously saved up until he was able to put down the money to start his grocery store. (You can see a 2011 KSMU interview with Mahmoud Salem by clicking here.) 

Minorities in Business is a grassroots organization that promotes economic development among businesses that come from under-represented groups, including businesses run by women.  

Lyle Foster is its executive director. He says another challenge for minorities is the size of the customer base:  sometimes, minority businesses are designed for a very specific ethnic group, or under-represented customer base. In cities and towns where those minority populations aren’t very big, like Springfield, this presents a real challenge for revenue.

Another factor is that Springfield, like many other communities, is a relationship-based business community…and minorities often aren’t in the traditional networking circles.

So:  what’s being done to address these challenges and to make it a more even playing field? Well, quite a bit these days:  a task force – specifically, The Public Entity Initiative Task Force – has brought together public entities like the City of Springfield, Greene County, City Utilities, libraries, the park board, and universities to set some goals regarding diversity in business.   Again, Lyle Foster.

“Public entities are often times some of the major sources of helping under-represented businesses get business opportunities. Because sometimes public entities have federal or state mandates to make sure there’s a certain goal-setting in terms of having contracting opportunities go to diverse businesses,” Foster said.

And those local public entities have identified their goals. For some, that's setting a goal for hiring a certain number of minority employees. For others, it might be trying to contract with minority-owned businesses, or at least encourage major contractors to sub-contract with diverse businesses.  Foster said in the past, many public entities asked for a waiver from those federal or state requirements, citing Springfield as an unrealistic place to find a diverse pool of applicants. 

However now, he said, there’s a push to raise awareness that there are minority-owned businesses here—and that it’s a community responsibility to make sure they are part of the overall economic development picture.  

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.