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LAM CHUOL: “If you have a business idea that’s viable, the Initiative Foundation is in a position to help you out.”

Aid for Entrepreneurs

Wrap-around support makes small business owners' path to success less taxing

By Kevin Allenspach
Photography by Paul Middlestaedt

Tax season can create anxiety for anyone. For low- to moderate-income individuals, especially new Americans, the path to filing a return can be intimidating. With help from the Initiative Foundation, Lam Chuol is making a career out of calming those fears. 

Born in Sudan, Chuol was 9 when his family came to the United States in 1998. He graduated from Minneapolis Roosevelt High School, earned a basketball scholarship to Ohio Valley University and received his accounting degree in 2010. He worked for various national tax preparers for several years before he branched out independently.

“I would have to charge people $300 to $400 and I was getting paid minimum wage,” said Chuol, who moved to St. Cloud in 2018. “A person who didn’t get their taxes done on time came to me once and I was able to help him out. I charged $100. That was my first client, and word spread.”

Chuol soon had people hiring him from as far away as Rochester and Fargo, N.D. But it was hard to separate his business and personal revenue, let alone grow his business from a spare bedroom in a house shared with his wife and two young sons. Connections in the Somali community led him to the Initiative Foundation’s Enterprise Academy, a 12-week program for underserved and early-stage entrepreneurs now in its fifth year. In January, after Chuol’s successful graduation from the program, the Foundation extended a microloan that provided capital for Chuol to rent and furnish an office for Lam Tax Service.

“This was something I really needed,” Chuol said. “For two years, I’ve been thinking about getting an office because I see the possibility for growth.”

The St. Cloud Enterprise Academy cohort meets for two hours each Saturday morning at the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation offices in downtown St. Cloud. With the education and support provided by Initiative Foundation trainers, Chuol was able to shape and refine his business plan.

“If you have [a business idea] that’s viable, [the Initiative Foundation] is in a position to help you out,” Chuol said.

Chuol is now among nearly 100 Enterprise Academy graduates and, since 2019, one of 20 microloan recipients (up to $50,000). He also joins the ranks of some 250 people who have received technical assistance from the Initiative Foundation. These wrap-around supports—education, lending and technical assistance—are three ways the Initiative Foundation is positioned to act on its mission to accelerate success for underserved communities.

STARTUP HUSTLE
Asia Walters of St. Cloud received a microloan for a business she started in the past year—a clothing line branded as Females That Hustle.

“I’ve been making money on my own since I was 13,” said Walters, who has six children and lives in St. Cloud. “I’ve been hustling. I work hard … I think women who hustle don’t get enough credit, and we like to dress nice. I’d go into a store and look for hours without finding the clothes I wanted to wear.”

It turns out a lot of people agreed. So she created some styles she’d want to wear and brought them to pop-up shops and black entrepreneur events. Sales grew and, while most have been in Minnesota, she’s shipped to customers in nine other states.

The microloan is helping her to stock inventory and buy machines to make her clothing. In February, she opened a metro-area boutique with weekend hours, taking some pressure off running everything from her home. She’s a potential Enterprise Academy student and believes the program will prove invaluable to help her learn more about marketing, bookkeeping, branding, web development, social media and legal aspects of business.

“I was getting turned down left and right for grants and loans,” Walters said. “I can’t even tell you all the ways this is going to help me.”

What started as engagement by the Initiative Foundation with East African and Somali entrepreneurs in the St. Cloud area has since grown to the Mille Lacs Tribal Economy and beyond. While Enterprise Academy has a special focus on serving racial and ethnic minorities, other underserved communities the program serves include veterans, women, low-income, small-town business owners, and anyone who wants to open a business and faces barriers.

For example, Enterprise Academy graduate Shawn Hopman used a microloan from the Foundation to start Ya-Sure Kombucha, a taproom and brewery in Brainerd.

“Shawn didn’t have a ton of money or equity when he started, but he had an awesome idea for a business,” said Brian Voerding, vice president for inclusive entrepreneurship at the Initiative Foundation. “We were able to step in and help him get going. Diversity is excellence when it comes to economic growth in our region, and we want entrepreneurs of all backgrounds to know we have access to helpful resources.”

Pam Thomsen is one of the primary trainers with the Enterprise Academy. She is a CPA who helps Foundation clients dive into every detail of business planning. Thomsen was able to help Chuol identify project costs and get estimates on everything from insurance to marketing, as well as estimating sales tax to help vet the financial viability of his idea.

“We don’t just get entrepreneurs a check,” Voerding said. “We provide ongoing support—we check in and connect them to community resources. We love it when, for example, we’re able to help fund someone with a food truck and then find gigs for them. We’re the starter conversation and we help folks get in business and be sustainable, and then the next conversation they’re having usually is with the bank in town.”

Voerding sees Chuol as a “force multiplier.” With Foundation support, his business will have the potential to thrive, and he’ll help other entrepreneurs achieve clean tax records and registrations. That will make it easier for the Foundation to help even more people in the future.

“Lam has a tax service, similar to other businesses in the same line, but a lot of what he’s doing is teaching, and that’s admirable because it’s a patient process,” Voerding said. “It’s hard enough for us who have lived here all our lives to figure that stuff out. When you have cultural differences and language barriers, it’s all the more difficult.”

That is why Chuol is likely to succeed.

“To the minority community in general, the word ‘taxes’ scares a lot of people,” Chuol said. “And a lot of them are going to people who might have the software, but can they explain why a client owes money? Or why a dependent claim is rejected. How can you help them? That’s what draws me to make this bigger.”

That growth is happening now, in a suite of the East Village shops in St. Cloud. Chuol already has multiple desks, a warm waiting area and is looking to hire employees.

“I believe everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I’m optimistic. The invitation to learn more about the Initiative Foundation and the Enterprise Academy came out of nowhere. If you have the vision to do something good with your business, the help, support and guidance is there.”

To learn more, visit ifound.org/economy/enterprise-academy/


 

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