They criticized Oprah when she built schools in South Africa; saying there are plenty of people she can help here in America. I wonder what they are going to say about an Ethiopian fighting poverty in America?
Poverty in America may look different than poverty in Ethiopia and other less developed nations in the world, but it is a realism that affects millions. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2006, 36.5 million of Americans were living in poverty. This reality is very difficult for many to absorb when considering the wealth of America. Nevertheless, we are consistently reminded of this problem regularly through mass media, and images such as that of Hurricane Katrina, are testaments to the seriousness of this problem.
Alfa Demmellash, a 27-year-old woman and native of Ethiopia was introduced to the issue of poverty in America while being educated in Boston. Alfa, a graduate of Harvard University, recalls how in some towns across Boston, families were struggling to get by and many were simply very poor. She also noticed how some individuals “couldn’t make it, even if they tried because they were trapped.” When examining the situation further Alfa found something common with most of these individuals. Like her mother did when Alfa was growing up, most families took additional trades to supplement their income. With education and some guidance, Alfa saw this entrepreneurial quality as the tool that could emancipate the poor from their current status. After about six months of research Alfa and her colleague (co-founder of Rising Tide Capital) Alex Forrester decided to go into Jersey City, NJ. Today, and for close to four years Alfa Demmellash is making it happen, as the C.E.O. of Rising Tide Capital. (press release)
Rising Tide Capital is a non-profit community organization whose mission is to support disadvantaged inner-city entrepreneurs with business development services and access to small business loans. Located in Jersey City, NJ this organization aims to serve low-income women, immigrants, minorities, and ex-offenders living in the inner-city communities of Northern New Jersey. The organization offers a 10-week program in which individuals learn the concepts and skills needed to establish a successful business. They also learn how to effectively communicate their ideas to lenders in order to obtain financing. Since Rising Tide Capital has built a partnership with micro lenders, when these individuals are ready, lenders are there to provide financing. The tuition for the training is paid by various sponsors. Some of the past and current sponsors include, Goldman Sacks, The Bank of American foundation and The JP Morgan Chase foundation. Just this past fall Alfa mentions how there were over 250 individuals who signed up for this program that runs only once a week. Since the organization was not able to accomidate this demand, they were able to raise more funding and hire addition well qualified staff and now they are able to hold training three times a week. This she adds, “Allows us to expand capacity a little more.” In the near future, she plans to have this program expand to areas such as Camden and Newark while having the ultimate goal of taking it internationally.
Alfa’s inspiration for the work she is doing stems from family and outside factors. Despite the hard-working characteristics of her parents, growing up, she recalls the insecurity that came from living pay-check to pay-check. Alfa mentions how her mother sewed women dresses part-time and credits this trade of her mother’s as giving her the ability to save enough money to bring Alfa to America. She explains how her mother was talented, educated, and very much capable of expanding her trade into a real business. However, she found her mother was intimidated once out of the (Ethiopian) community and when faced with various business-related issues. The more Alfa thought of this situation, the more she realized how many people like her mother she could help. Alfa also finds inspiration in Dr. Muhammad Yunus founder of the Grameen Bank. She figured if he was able to make his program successful starting in Bangladesh, surely it couldn’t be that difficult in America where credit is widely available.
Alfa Demmellish was recently featured in “O” (Oprah’s Magazine) as being named a winner of the Avon Hello Tomorrow Fund, this cash award program from Avon Products, Inc. is to support individuals in their work to empower women. Alfa’s new project Sifatau, is a woman-owned company created to provide hands-on training in business management and planning to aspiring and existing women entrepreneurs living in New Jersey and the New York Metropolitan area. The reason for the creation of this company is to serve women that did not meet the requirements under the current mission of Rising Tide Capital. Alfa states “Many women who owned store fronts in Jersey City were coming to us for assistance, and I wanted to help them but did not want to cause confusion by re-writing a different mission statement for Rising Tide Capital.”