These Black Immigrant Women Purchased Mall in Minneapolis

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The lack of access to suitable retail space had been a significant challenge for these immigrant businesswomen in the Twin Cities. By establishing a commercial real estate cooperative, they are leveraging collective strength to overcome this obstacle.

Every time a member of the Ignite Business Women Investment Group made a deposit into the group’s account, board president Jannie Seibure received a notification as a photo of the deposit receipt appeared in the cooperative’s WhatsApp chat.

Ignite, a commercial real estate cooperative founded by Black immigrant businesswomen in the Twin Cities, was established in 2022 with the goal of collectively acquiring commercial properties for its members and other businesses catering to their community.

Each deposit receipt symbolized the frustration accumulated over years of being disregarded by landlords who were reluctant to rent to immigrants with accents. It also reflected the challenges of renting from commercial property owners who imposed exorbitant rents for substandard spaces, delayed repairs and maintenance, and evicted tenants for minor delays in rent payment.

These receipts now represent the success of their collective efforts as small business owners hailing from various parts of the world, primarily Liberia, Nigeria, Somalia, and other African countries. Together, they have purchased a strip mall in the Twin Cities.

“There was absolutely no way this would have been possible without the group coming together as a cooperative,” Seibure emphasized. “It simply wouldn’t have happened.”

Four years ago, these women began gathering regularly to support each other’s businesses during the pandemic, sharing resources to navigate through difficult times. A smaller subset continued meeting to oversee the cooperative’s financial matters and draft its bylaws.

To date, the 27 members have collectively contributed nearly $300,000 from their hard-earned savings to their commercial real estate cooperative. These funds were instrumental in securing the remaining $5.2 million raised from other sources to acquire the cooperative’s inaugural property, Shingle Creek Center.

Situated in Brooklyn Center, a blue-collar suburb just north of Minneapolis, the strip mall comprises 18 storefronts, of which 14 were occupied and four vacant at the time of acquisition in October 2023. Approximately a quarter of the suburb’s residents hail from foreign countries.

Despite facing numerous challenges, including discrimination, some members of the Ignite Business Women Investment Group have been running their businesses for over two decades. Many spent the past ten years operating out of conventional suburban office buildings instead of storefronts, as those were often the only spaces available to them in the market.

Seibure, the owner of Cavalla Travel & Tours, has rented space in an office building with numerous other retail businesses, situated just down the street from Shingle Creek Center, for several years.

“You pass by our building and there are over a hundred businesses in there, and you won’t even know,” Seibure remarks. “They don’t want us to grow; they want us to stay right where we are. Even some of the [retail] businesses that shouldn’t be in that building are there, and as a result, their revenues are very low.”

This scenario is set to change with the group’s new property. “With access to a space like the strip mall we just acquired, they can build their audience and generate significant revenue,” she explains.

After operating a travel agency in Liberia, Seibure moved to Minneapolis 23 years ago with an accounting degree, landing a job at a mainstream commercial bank. However, after 13 years, she encountered a glass ceiling. So, she withdrew her 401(k) and started a new travel agency as a side hustle, eventually turning it into a full-time business with the help of her corporate banking connections.

Despite her business’s success, Seibure struggled to find a storefront to move into. She has a vision to expand her travel agency into a luggage and travel accessory store but has been unable to secure a suitable space—until now. Seibure is currently overseeing renovations for one of the vacant storefronts at Shingle Creek Center and hopes to move her expanded business there by April.

“For five years, I would call mall owners, and when they call me back, they hear my accent and what I’m trying to do,” Seibure recalls. “They find a way to make it seem like ‘oh, it’s not profitable, we’re not giving it to her.’ Now, it feels like a dream come true.”

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