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Winter 2005
Photo courtesy Contra Costa Times  
Starting Over with Start-Up Help
Farhana Huq, J98, is leaving her mark on poverty by helping immigrant and refugee women learn business basics

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 life.”

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 and excited.”

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 anymore.”