Fikiria: Portland business cluster offers hope to emerging entrepreneurs

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PORTLAND — As she braided Alice Umulisa’s hair, Nana Batumike talked about running her new business.

“I wanted to start because I wanted to feel at home and make my living,” Batumike said. “It was my dream since I was little.”

She is the owner of NanuSka Style, where she not only braids hair but also sells cosmetics and African clothing. Batumike is also one of the first tenants of Fikiria, a cluster of spaces for entrepreneurs inside Catholic Charities Maine’s Threads of Hope thrift store at 1041 Brighton Ave.

Fikiria is the Swahili word for “imagine.”

With two of 12 spaces rented, Tae Chong, Catholic Charities Maine’s social enterprise and workforce development manager, said the hope extends beyond an opportunity to develop new businesses into an economic ecosystem allowing entrepreneurs to join together.

“How do I help the single mom, the entrepreneur, the student without resources?” Chong asked while standing next door to NanuSka Style, in Anaam Jabbir’s Chiffon Alterations.

Jabbir was visiting family in her native Iraq, but in a phone call said collaborative efforts to start her business also made her dream a reality.

“This is a good opportunity for me and for all community,” she said. “It would be hard for me to start alone.”

Chong, formerly with the Coastal Enterprise Institute, has long worked to help immigrants utilize their skills and prosper in the state economy. He said Fikiria takes a wider approach.

“I’m trying to push for art students and university students to use this shop to test out ideas,” Chong said.

Spaces are rented below market value, starting at $325 per month, and Chong is among those who provide free business counseling, guidance with marketing and customer service, and display and point of sale areas within the store.

Also supporting Fikiria are cPort Credit Union, Maine Technology Institute, Bill and Joan Alfond Foundation, Rocking Moon Foundation and Lee International. Individual donations included sewing machines from Dory Waxman of Old Port Wool and Textile School for Professional Stitchers.

Jabbir the head foreperson at Westrook-based apparel makers American Roots, and will be able to tap into labor there for part-time help as demand may require.

As Fikiria takes hold, Chong already sees potential collaborations where Batumike uses her love for design and Jabbir adds her sewing skills, perhaps even using clothing already for sale at the thrift shop.

Chong became Jabbir’s first customer when she altered some slacks for him.

“From the beginning, I knew alterations should be an anchor for Fikiria,” he said.

Items and services at Fikiria should not provide direct competition to thrift store items and will remain inexpensive. At the same time, the spaces should be viewed as a stepping stone to allow the entrepreneurs to earn enough to move up on their own.

Fikiria was originally intended to open last fall on St. John Street. When the location did not work out, Threads of Hope was available, with the added advantage that store manager Amanda Fisher used to work for retailer Nieman Marcus.

“She knows how to do the high-end stuff,” Chong said of her expertise.

The day-to-day work still requires some coaching, but Chong said he really wants owners to be able to focus on what they like as they grow.

For Batumike, also a mother of six children, the balance of home and work is in progress.

“It is challenging, but when you love what you are doing, you usually find a way,” she said.

David Harry can be reached at 780-9092 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

NanuSka Style owner Nana Batumike braids Alice Umulisa’s hair Feb. 8 in her rented space at Fikiria on Brighton Avenue in Portland. Batumike is charged below-market rent and receives business guidance and advice.

Tae Chong, of Catholic Charities of Maine, is leading the effort to develop Fikiria, a space for emerging entrepreneurs at the Threads of Hope thrift store. He was also the first customer at tenant Chiffon Alterations.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.