Tag Archives: Business

Providing Uncommon Creatives a Common Community

February 14, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Luke Armstrong is in the midst of completing a facelift. Fair warning: he’s never worked under the knife, favors knit cardigans to scrubs, and has no expertise in the medical field whatsoever.

A botched procedure, this is not. Instead of erasing wrinkles and chiseling cheekbones, Armstrong is restructuring Cali Commons to become the starting point of a local renaissance. In January 2018, the organization’s antiquated midtown building ceased being a pseudo-gallery and co-working office, and shifted focus to become a base for artists, makers, and performers looking for a collaborative creation space. Think of it like a club for grownups, only way cooler.

“Cali Commons is now a marketplace for people who want to pursue multiple things and test ideas with other talented artists and entrepreneurs,” Armstrong says. “It’s about growing a common network and helping one another find some fulfillment.”

The corner of California and 40th streets is not new to Omaha creatives. It’s been a home for them since Armstrong and his roommate, Molly Nicklin, bought what was once a grocery store and turned it into a co-working office in 2013. Like any good artist, inspiration struck and it was time to switch up the organization’s business model.

This new and improved Cali Commons boasts access to shared spaces for events, cutting-edge technology that includes everything from live-streaming cameras to editing and marketing software, and a staff of agents who will help sell and promote work. Ideally, Armstrong hopes to recruit 40 to 50 members, asking they pay a $90 monthly fee for membership.

“The greatest benefit of being a member is working in a community of like-minded creatives who aren’t necessarily in the same field but share an interest in collaborating and assisting with other members’ projects,” says Christopher Vaughn Couse, local visual artist and member of Cali Commons.

To build this network of burgeoning creators, Armstrong started a year ago by recruiting those he has met while operating Cali Commons as a gallery. Next, he and his staff began employing grassroots marketing tactics, passing out literature espousing the benefits of membership. In an effort to contact key demographics, the organization plans to attend networking events to reach more business-minded creatives, such as graphic designers or software developers. 

Together, the 40 to 50 members will form the Uncommon Core, a group that works together to launch engaging products, services, and experiences while growing their own income. Each member has a reserved spot on a shared gallery wall at Cali Commons, where they can display work, ideas, or innovative merchandise.  

“My hope is this experiment proves that an engaged group is more valuable than any individual working on their own,” Armstrong says. “If it proves successful, maybe this is something that can be replicated elsewhere.”

Another benefit for members is the interior of the building has been designed to aid in holding myriad events, from skill-development classes and lectures to pop-up art shops. Cali Commons also hosts collaborative and competitive art nights once or twice a month.

“Members have access to events, material resources, everything they need to do something new,” Armstrong says. “Sometimes people just need permission to explore multiple things, and here, you’ll get that.”

Visit calicommons.com for more information.

This article was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

Brand R/evolution

February 7, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In the fall of 2016, Hannah Nodskov was in her final semester at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, studying entrepreneurship and marketing. She was also having a “weird crisis,” as she calls it.

Her goal for the last three years had been to graduate and run her fashion design business, Hannah Caroline Couture, full time. Which sounds ideal, until one thing after another continued
to compound.

Ultimately, that led to the crisis she found herself in– the realization that maybe it wasn’t her dream to be a fashion designer anymore.

She says she felt burnt out. Being a 21-year-old running a fashion brand, finishing your last semester of college, and planning a wedding could have that effect on anyone.

“Pulling an all-nighter when I had a test the next day was not unusual,” she says of this time in her life. “It was a series of little moments. Every time I would agree to an order I didn’t love, it would be soul-sucking.”

The burnout prompted her decision at the time to take a hiatus from her brand to focus on her September nuptials and find a better work-life balance.

She says she constantly felt guilty for relaxing, thinking it was more important to make money than anything else. It left her feeling she was always apologizing for missing events to work.

“It’s common in entrepreneurship to get burnt out, and no one talks about it,” she says. “You just tell everybody it’s perfect all the time.”

While taking a much-needed break from her business, Nodskov stayed busy with a new job at tech startup Interface: The Web School, and planning her wedding. She was also making all the men’s bowties, bridesmaids dresses, mothers’ dresses, and her bridal gown for the big day.

She adds that wedding planning definitely affected her decision to take her fashion brand in a new direction. The idea of creating a bridal collection came to her gradually, she says.

Another defining moment on her journey of self-discovery came when she entered Max I. Walker’s Ultra Chic Boutique Dress Flip Contest in January.

Designers were tasked with taking an unwanted prom, bridesmaid, or formal dress and making it into a new dress. Nodskov says it was the first time she made something for fun in two years.

From there she knew she wanted to spend the remainder of her hiatus refining her brand’s image and core values. She says she thought a lot about what types of orders still brought her joy and remaking that prom dress came to mind.

“I want to make pieces for moments that are special and should be celebrated,” she says. “I want to focus on bridal, special occasion, and formalwear with an emphasis in plus-size and alternative bridal styles.”

The woman she designs for is a bride who wants to break all the traditional wedding expectations for what a dress should look like. A woman who is powerful or in a position of leadership. A woman who is a role models for others. A woman who wants to stand out when she enters a room. A woman who is empowered.

The woman Nodskov is in the process of becoming.

She says her next big challenge is figuring out who she is, separate from her fashion brand. She adds how much she learned about herself from her first job out of college at Interface: The Web School.

Right now, she really loves working at tech startup ScoreVision as a marketing communications specialist. She plans to enjoy it for a while and figure out the parts of her job she really likes before deciding what’s next. She adds that she does have plans to relaunch her fashion brand
after the holidays.

Nodskov is forever grateful she didn’t get accepted to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City because that’s how she ended up at UNO studying business. She says it’s the “best decision she didn’t make on purpose.”

“I love living in Omaha,” she says. “I feel connected to the startup community here. I’m able to invite people from the fashion community to get involved because there’s so much support, and it’s so welcoming. It doesn’t matter how big your business is.”

Nodskov would love to see the fashion industry start educating designers on the technical aspects of how to grow their businesses instead of only teaching them how to design clothes.

“Having a business education makes me think differently about my fashion brand than someone coming from a design perspective,” she says. “When I design something, I’ll think, ‘that’s pretty, but how am I going to sell it?’ I’ll think about the pricing strategy and marketing that needs to go into the garment.”

Since starting her business more than six years ago, Nodskov has come to the realization that there’s only “so much you can learn about entrepreneurship sitting in a classroom. You have to experience it.”

Visit hccdesign.co for more information. 

This article published in the January/February 2018 edition of Encounter.

Incubators and Accelerators

February 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It takes much more than just a good idea to launch a successful new business. From a comprehensive business plan to office space, starting a new business is no easy task. According to the Small Business Administration, only about half of new startups make it to the five-year mark.

That in mind, business incubators and accelerators offer supportive methods to help convert ideas into viable businesses, boosting startups with capital, a host of support services, and mentorship in exchange for a stake in the business.

Incubators guide a business from its embryonic stages and cultivate early development in exchange for a portion of the business, typically 5 to 10 percent. The time spent in an incubator depends on how long it takes the business to hatch its own workspace, or the amount of time needed to outgrow the current workspace. In many cases, one investor group funds several or all of the businesses in the incubator. Mentorships come from entrepreneurial investors and peers in the co-working space.

An accelerator has distinct differences, one being that the time spent in the central workspace is usually 90-120 days. Accelerators help a relatively well-developed business speed its transition through the final stages of planning and into actual operations. The business owner receives less funding, because the support services are meant to improve the owner’s means of raising capital following the startup’s graduation from the program. Mentorships often come from entrepreneurs affiliated with the accelerator.

Mark Griffis, founder/president of software development firm Aviture, is also managing partner of The Garage by Aviture, a software startup incubator. He says he sees a real need for accelerators and incubators in the community along with increased awareness of their existence and function.

“There are a lot of talented people here in Omaha. But what we found when we opened the doors to The Garage a couple of years ago, we had 200 people pitching to us and out of that there were probably only three who were really actually ready to receive funding and go to the next level,” Griffis says. “There’s just a lot of education that needs to happen.”

Before attempting to apply to an incubator, a startup should have a solid, marketable idea, and often, a solid business plan. The company needs to be able to show potential investors there is something to build on. They must commit to the incubator’s regulations, which often include training sessions and other time-consuming activities.

Griffis emphasizes that while funding is certainly important, the sharing of expertise can save budding entrepreneurs from harsh trial-and-error lessons and is a crucial factor in helping them succeed.

“One of the key differentiators [for The Garage] is how we’ve integrated it with Aviture. In our environment we have such a diverse group of [technology-minded] individuals who can add experience to what these startups are doing. So people who are working…on the Aviture side can help can collaborate with startup guys who are trying to find their way out of the woods,” he says. “It’s not the traditional incubator with a bunch of startups cross-pollinating or creating coalitions.”

Luke Towey is director of finance for Prairie Ventures, a private investment fund and cooperative of entrepreneurs and investors that, at one time, also operated a business incubator. He says that not every applicant will be accepted into an incubator or accelerator, but the business can still be successful.

“It’s not that it isn’t a good idea or that it’s not something the entrepreneur could be successful with, it’s just that they might be better off getting an SBA loan, or grant money, and doing it on their own,” Towey says.

Not all incubators and accelerators are commercial ventures. Steve Bors, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, says the college was one of the first in the state to offer a business incubator on campus more than a decade ago. 

“We’re here to serve southeast Nebraska. That’s our mission, and this is certainly filling a need in southeast Nebraska,” he says. “Here at the Center we will help anybody who’s interested in starting a business. They do not have to be a student. If we can’t help them, we will refer them to some other entity or other service provider who can. Our coaching services are free and then of course we have our incubator on site, which we call our Focus Suites. We have 20 offices that we make available to people starting businesses or who are early in the process.”

Dale Eesley, director of the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Franchising, says educational institution-based incubators “generally don’t take any equity.”

An entrepreneur who wants to work with a college-based incubator should expect to rent a workspace. While corporate incubators normally require regular meetings with coaches, entrepreneurs at college incubators seek out faculty as a resource for information and coaching.

“The educational institutions oftentimes aren’t set up to easily accommodate the business needs of students. It’s a nice compromise to have an offsite or a nonprofit for venture outside of the university school system. It simplifies intellectual property issues and also it gives students the contacts they need that are outside, like suppliers, customers, and investors,” Eesley says. “I hope that UNO will have [an incubator] in the near future. I’m optimistic that we’ll have space on campus in the next three years.”

Bors says that while many commercial incubators and accelerators are associated with the tech industry, his on-campus incubator fosters businesses in many sectors.

“We think all new businesses are valuable. They’re creating new jobs where they didn’t exist before,” he says. “I’m very proud about how diverse our program is…we have senior citizens, I think over half our businesses are female-owned, we have different ethnic groups, and different religions, etc….There is a lot of collaboration and a lot of leads shared back and forth.” 

Whether commercial or campus-based, incubators and accelerators exist to help businesses succeed, which creates jobs and stimulates the local economy.

Visit garagebyaviture.com, prairieventures.net, southeast.edu/entrepreneurship, and unomaha.edu/college-of-business-administration/center-for-innovation-entrepreneurship-franchising for more information about the organizations mentioned in this article.

This article was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

Invest In Yourself

January 19, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There is nothing easy about running a business. But if keeping going is akin to spinning grandma’s good china while juggling flaming knives as you tame a coterie of ill-tempered badgers with little more than a spork—while blindfolded—actually starting the business is doubly so. Ask me how I know, assuming I can manage to get the badgers tranquilized and carted back to Wisconsin.

One of the most difficult things about starting a business is acquiring money. And, if you’re thinking of striking out on your own after 15 years as a roofer, you’re probably not going to find an angel investor at the Colab Construction Incubator who wants to float you a year or two’s operating costs and a pallet of roofing nails. So, maybe you get a loan. Maybe your friends and family invest. Maybe you scrape along project-by-project trying to make the cash flow actually live up to its name. Regardless, you don’t have a fistful of dollars to drop on anything inessential. Which is why you absolutely must lessen your kung-fu grip and drop some bread on your brand.

Notice that I said “brand” and not “marketing.” While I do think you should start making a habit of spending actual money on marketing as soon as possible, I believe in putting first things first. And your brand is first. Because you shouldn’t market what you don’t yet have figured out.

Chances are, you didn’t set aside much (any?) startup money for brand development beyond promising your cousin with the mad Creative Suite skills a case of microbrew for doing your logo. I understand the desire/ necessity to be as frugal as possible. But while it is technically possible to fix your brand later, it’s neither strategically nor financially sound to go that route.

So, here are the things you should consider paying money for from professionals who know what they’re doing: Business name, brand platform, logo, color palette/design standards, tone-of-voice, and doughnuts. Even if you think you have a good name for your company, at least consult someone with no emotional attachment to it or an in-law relationship to you. If you don’t know what a brand platform is, that’s all the more reason to have one—it will keep you focused on doing the right things while targeting the right people. The logo, standards, and tone- of-voice are the embodiment of your brand in the marketplace—it’s easier to stand out when these are done well. The doughnuts speak for themselves.

Combined, these elements give you a foundation for your business that should last for years. And it is even possible to find really great people and agencies who can do them at a cost that won’t cause heart palpitations. Also, even though you can list these things as expenses on your tax return, it is best to consider them investments. Because that’s what they are. And you’ll never have to pay capital gains tax on the brand equity you start building today.

Jason Fox is a freelance creative director and writer. He can be found at jasonfox.net and adsavior.com.

This column was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

New Business and Marketing Ethics

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Owners of new businesses have myriad ethical problems similar to the problems in mature businesses. The difference is that new business owners don’t have years of experience to help them more easily make sound decisions. But practice and a good process can lead to long term, honorable business growth. Case in point:

Dear Ethics Adviser,

I’m passionate about making life easier for folks. I’ve started a concierge service I sell to businesses that they, in turn, provide to their employees. I’ve been able to get a few accounts, but I’m not growing as fast as I’d like. Part of my problem is not knowing how to price my service. I think I’m overcharging. It’s not as if I can ask my competitors what they charge.

A colleague of mine recommended a strategy. He said to ask a friend who does procurement at a local firm to put out a request for proposals (RFP) for concierge service. The friend wouldn’t really want the service, mind you, but would put out the RPF simply to collect bids from companies and then tell me what they charge. This way, I get the best information about the market and won’t overprice my service. Would you recommend this strategy?

Dear Passionate,

While the strategy is practical and can yield fast results, it is not ethical and should not be used. Ethical decision making requires that you think far, wide, and high about your options.

In this case, when you think far, about consequences for all, you notice that competitors would anticipate that they could get business from their work. They would use valuable time completing your fake RFP that they could instead use on live prospects. You are creating harm. Would you want someone to do this to you?

When you think wide, you recognize all of the duties and obligations you have to different people. A fundamental duty is to try to tell the truth. In this case, you are being deceptive in order to make life easier for yourself. This is wrong.

When you think high, you ask yourself, “What kind of person do I want to be? Would my mom be proud if she knew about my action?” The moms that teach us to be strong and true would not approve of this way of finding pricing information. It’s a short cut, and not noble.

So when you stop to think far, wide, and high, you see that this pricing strategy is wrong.

What can you do instead, Passionate?

Rather than seek a fast solution, get your mind around the fact that business wisdom comes from the school of hard knocks and it can’t be shortchanged. Experiment; try one solution, then another; succeed sometimes; fail others. Engage with business leaders you truly admire to get advice. Keep your values front of mind, and profit has a great chance of following.

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Business Ethics Alliance and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics and Society at Creighton University.

This column was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

It’s True, Tourism Touches All of Our Lives

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Astonished. That’s the word that describes colleagues, friends, family, and groups when they learn what tourism looks like in our city. Ask a family member or friend to guess how many visitors come to Omaha each year and chances are their answer will not even come close. New research shows 12.3 million visitors travel to Omaha each year—that’s more than the total population of Portugal or Greece. They visit for weekend getaways, to see family and friends, to attend conferences, sporting events and concerts, and to conduct business. And while here they spend money. Visitors spend $1.2 billion every year at our restaurants, attractions, hotels, retail shops, and other enterprises. Their spending contributes to our local economy, tax revenue, community development, and other important benefits we all enjoy.

Visitor spending also creates jobs—17,280 of them. One in every 17 jobs in Omaha is supported by visitor spending, which means you probably know someone who has a job in tourism, or has a job thanks to tourism. In fact, tourism is the eighth largest private sector employer in Omaha. 

Still don’t think your life is touched by tourism? Let’s talk taxes. Taxes generated by visitor spending saves each Douglas County household $730 per year. If visitors stop coming to Omaha and stop spending their money here, your taxes would go up or the current level of government services would go down. We would also see a significant number of jobs lost in the tourism industry if visitors did not show up.    

You can help Omaha’s tourism numbers grow even bigger. Keep inviting family and friends to visit. If your business, association, or industry hosts meetings, conferences, trade shows, reunions, or any other special event, invite them to Omaha and provide an economic boost to our economy.

After seeing the numbers, people get it—tourism is a big deal and a great deal for our city.

Visit Omaha can help.

If bringing a meeting home seems overwhelming to you, Visit Omaha, Omaha’s official tourism authority, is here to help at no cost.  Visit Omaha has the expertise and resources to help make your meeting or event, a success. Check out visitomaha.com/meetings to start planning your event.

Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau.

This column was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

Four Steps to Strategic Planning for Startups

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

One of the keys to starting a new business successfully is having a strategic plan in place. This helps companies determine their direction, plan for the future, identify opportunities, and anticipate issues. It also helps companies keep up with changing client needs and market trends, stay ahead of the competition, unite employees around a shared vision, and ultimately make better business decisions. Although a strategic plan is critical for business success, it can be difficult for new owners to know where to start.

Start with your vision. What do you want your company to be like three to five years from now? Be specific. What will you have achieved? What will your competitive advantage be? What will your culture be? How will people work together? How will your company treat customers? How will people communicate with one another? What markets will you have tapped into? How will people make decisions? What new services will you offer? How will people demonstrate accountability? What will your reputation be? How will other organizations and the surrounding community view your company?

Identify the roadblocks. They could be policies, procedures, attitudes, etc. Sometimes they are obvious, sometimes less so. Consider what issues exist for your new company. Limited startup capital? Hiring warm bodies instead of true talent? Unfocused marketing strategy? Outdated technology platforms? Inconsistent pricing model? Squirrel syndrome? Figure out what could get in the way of achieving your vision and write it down.

Identify your strategies. What actions will you take to destroy your roadblocks and achieve your vision? These strategies may be projects, initiatives, events, etc. For example, what will you do to overcome an unfocused marketing strategy and achieve brand recognition? Establish partnerships with recognized brands? Identify competitive differentiators? Generate strategies for each of your roadblocks and be as specific as possible.

Nail down the specifics of implementation. What strategies will you focus on in your first year? What specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, time-bound steps need to be taken? Who will do what and when? Divide your first year into quarters, and drill into the specifics of what will take place in each quarter to keep your plan moving forward. As you look at your overall plan, consider whether the timing seems feasible and whether anyone has too much on his or her plate. Prioritize and rearrange as necessary. Next, decide how you will hold yourself and others accountable to the plan. Schedule regular follow-up meetings, and review and revise your plan each year.

Startups face many risks, but some of them can be avoided through proper strategic planning. Regularly review and revise your plan to keep up with a fast-paced, ever-changing world.

Lauren Weivoda, M.A., is a​ ​human​ ​capital​ ​strategist​​ at Solve Consulting LLC.

This column was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

The Best Sales Call Ever

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I regularly get feedback from clients about sales calls. Recently a client came to me and said, “I had the best sales call ever!” What she told me warmed my heart because the call was almost effortless, the signed agreement was in her hands in record time, and the customer stayed in her selling system from beginning to end.

The sales process for this particular opportunity dragged out longer than my client wanted. Finally, the presentation was scheduled with the decision maker, (if it’s with anybody else, you are wasting time), and as she headed to the appointment, she said to herself, “I really don’t care if I get this business or not.” This mindset allowed her to relax and be objective when the presentation began. She began the meeting by setting the expectation: She was going to review the proposal, which would sell for the expected amount, and, if the prospect liked it, he would sign it and implementation would begin. There was clarity of purpose which came off as professionalism to the prospect, and, of course, the prospect agreed to the contract and the
presentation began.

There were about a half-dozen items to present on the proposal. My client started with the first item and presented how this item addressed the need of the prospect. It went well. She went to the next item and presented how this item addressed the need of the prospect. At that point, the prospect said, “Stop! I’ll take it!” He immediately signed his name to the proposal. My client’s one-hour presentation was over in 10 minutes. She planned on “closing” the prospect, but he simply bought it. When she returned to her office, even her coworker was surprised to see her so soon. Smiling from ear to ear she tells him, “Got it!” No pressure, no sweating, no haggling over price, no need to close the prospect—this is what the best sales call ever looks like.

Here are some key techniques my client had learned, and then used in this call:

1. Before the presentation started, she thought to herself, “So what if I don’t get this business. I have a meat-lover’s pizza in the trunk,” which means she behaved as if she is financially independent. This mindset eliminates pressure and frees up the salesperson to ask tough questions and take risks.

2. She had a deep understanding of her client’s problems and budget, which she reviewed prior to presenting the proposal to make sure there were no roadblocks on the way to the order.

3. She got a commitment to purchase before presenting her intellectual property. The proposal had to be met with 100 percent satisfaction from the prospect, but if it did, he would buy.

4. My client shut her mouth when the prospect said, “I’ll take it!” She let him sign the proposal and then thanked him for the business and left.

Sales should always be fun regardless if you win or lose. Yes, this is easier said than done. Follow the aforementioned system to start having the best sales calls ever.

Karl Schaphorst is a 27-year veteran of sales who now specializes in training other sales professionals. He is the president of Sandler Training.

This column was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

An Evangelist for Innovation

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As vice president of marketing and communications for YMCA of Greater Omaha, Jocelyn Houston’s days never look alike. “No day is ever the same for me, and I like that,” she says. “Plus I love that it’s all for a good cause.”

Originally from Crawford “on the other side of Nebraka,” she attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to study journalism. Houston came to Omaha less than five years ago to work in client relations at Universal Information Services.

Universal’s vice president, Todd Murphy, says Jocelyn brought energy to the tech-forward company.

“Attitude is everything, and she exhibited a professional, warm personality in the office, which I think helps to raise the attitudes of everyone around them,” Murphy says. “She was a good evangelist in helping raise awareness of our culture of innovation.”

Jocelyn likes Omaha for a variety of reasons. “It’s a great place to raise a family and still get that ‘big city’ feel,” she says. She and her husband, Josh, particularly enjoy visiting the farmers market at Aksarben and eating at au courant restaurants. “There’s always new things happening in Omaha.”

That love of the town is one of the reasons she is a good fit for the YMCA. She’s also an avid volunteer for the YMCA and has made a name for herself within the local media community as a member of the Marketing and Membership Committee of the Omaha Press Club. “I use the advice I get from other Press Club members daily,” says Houston.

Following one year on that committee, the members now also look to her for advice—she was voted to their board of directors in mid-January.

Marketing and Membership Committee chair and board secretary Bridget (Weide) Brooks says that Houston is “…a great gal. What I like about her most is her interesting ideas. Her perspective is unique and very actionable.” Brooks adds that sometimes Houston simply asks a question during meetings that gets everyone thinking and looking at things differently.

That may be because Houston is always open to new experiences. “I met my husband on a blind date!” she says, laughing. She also urges professionals to not be too hard on themselves. “We have to stop doing that,” she says.

Her years of success so far have taught her valuable lessons that she’s happy to share with other professional up-and-comers. “Success is hard work and it takes sacrifices. It can be discouraging trying to get a professional career off the ground. You have to create your own ‘having it all’ and decide what that means for you. Take advantage of opportunities and don’t be afraid to stumble into success.”

She looks forward to watching her two young children grow up and where life takes her. “I love the industry I work in,” she says. She’s a professional living in a city she loves, working in a career she loves—and that is certainly an excellent example of success at any age.

“Write your own story,” she adds. “Be part of a cause.”

Visit metroymca.org for more information.

This article was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

Kabul Cousins Find Common Ground

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A trained sniper and special forces service member from Kabul, Afghanistan, is not who people expect to see standing behind the counter of a grocery store. Even more uncommon is that the store is run by two cousins from Kabul who wound up in different parts of this country before reuniting in Omaha to run an international grocery store.

Muhib Hassan and Niamatullah Habibzai were born in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. They attended the same high school, and signed up to work with the U.S. military as linguists soon after they graduated. Habibzai spoke Dari and Pashto, two of the most commonly spoken languages in Afghanistan. He started working with the U.S. military in 2005. Hassan began working with the U.S. two years later.

“When the U.S. military came in, there was a very urgent need of linguists back then,” Habibzai says.

“If you knew a little bit of English, they would hire you, just to communicate with local people.”

Habibzai worked as a cultural adviser and interpreter between the U.S. military and the Afghan National Army. Hassan worked with U.S. special forces, and helped train the Afghan Local Police, Afghan National Police, and the Afghan Border Police. He also went to villages and communicated with local elders.

Habibzai and Hassan faced threats both implied and physical for working with the U.S. military. Habibzai says he cannot return to the village where their family lived for fear of retaliation by the Taliban.

“Even our relatives were blaming us for bringing Americans to the village,” Hassan says.

Hassan took shrapnel in his hand when he was involved in a firefight in 2012. Sitting next to a white freezer at their grocery store, Subzi Mundi, Hassan rolled up his sleeve and traced a line across his left thumb and index finger where the shrapnel entered. He says he has almost no feeling in his left index finger.

Hassan and Habibzai’s service helped them each obtain a Special Immigration Visa (SIV), which are primarily given to Afghans and Iraqis who have assisted the U.S. military. In 2016, the state department estimated it granted about 20,000 SIVs to Afghans who have assisted the U.S. military (the number also includes family members of those who have helped). 

With his SIV secured, Habibzai moved to Fairfax, Virginia, in April 2011. He was still working for the military as a contractor. He then moved to North Dakota because some of his friends in the military were living there. In 2014, Habibzai moved to Omaha.

“I wanted to settle somewhere that I can have a family and raise my kids,” Habibzai says. “I thought Omaha was a good place.”

Subzi Mundi became a go-to grocery store for ingredients common to his cuisine, like goat meat and fresh dates. After repeated trips, he expressed an interest in buying the store outright. However, undertaking all of the responsibilities of running a grocery store is too much for one person. He needed a partner.

Enter his cousin.

Hassan moved to Durham, North Carolina, in 2013. He chose this location because he knew friends in the military who lived there. While in Durham, he worked as a truck driver and a driver coordinator (recruiting other truck drivers). Hassan brought wife Noorya and his daughter (since then, they have had another daughter, 3, and a son, 14 months old).

“It was hard for them,” Hassan says. “When I was at work, they were just sitting at home all the time.”

In his first few months in the United States, his daughter fell ill with a fever and kidney infection. He didn’t even know where to take her.

“I called my friend, he was living two hours away from me,” Hassan says.

His friend drove to his home and gave the family a ride to the hospital. While at the hospital, Hassan said he didn’t even have an insurance card on him.

“I didn’t have anything,” Hassan says.

What he did have was family, and when Habibzai asked for help running a store, Hassan and his family moved to Omaha.

Last year, Hassan agreed to help his cousin in buying Subzi Mundi. Habibzai had saved money he made contracting with the military and used it to secure the business. He and his cousin formed an LLC (AFG Cousins). In October 2016, Hassan and Habibzai became owners of Subzi Mundi.

The two cousins also have a nonbiological family member in Omaha who works with Lutheran Family Services. Lacey Studnicka, director of advancement for community services at LFS, heard about Hassan and Habibzai’s story. LFS provides assistance to SIV holders. Studnicka says LFS, as well as the state department, provides similar services to SIV recipients as refugees. The primary difference is the path to getting a visa is usually much shorter for SIV recipients because of the services they offer to the U.S. military, even though the vetting process is just as intensive, Studnicka says. The actions of linguists like Hassan and Habibzai have saved soldiers lives, something she routinely hears from service members.

“Not only did they serve our country, but now they’re business owners, and giving back to the community,” Studnicka says.

Visit @subzimundi1 on Facebook to learn more about this grocery store.

Muhib Hassan

This article was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.