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Somalia entrepreneur helps create several businesses across Central Minnesota
St. Cloud Times
Sunday, April 07, 2013

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Tohow Siyad takes entrepreneurship to a level many of us will never know. A native Somali, he came to the United States 15 years ago and has since created several businesses from scratch.

After working a variety of jobs in Minneapolis, he saved enough capital to open a grocery store there. Not quite 10 years ago, that grew into two others here in St. Cloud to serve the area’s growing Somali population.

Seeing a chance to go in a different direction, he launched National Home Health Inc., a care transportation company, in 2008. Today he is president of a company that has a fleet of 20 vehicles operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, throughout Central Minnesota and as far away as Walker. The business does non-emergency medical transportation for people in wheelchairs, who are handicapped or have other ambulatory issues. His drivers also deliver service to nonmedical destinations such as nursing homes and places of worship.

While Siyad, his partner, Mahad Adam, and Siyad’s wife, Anab Ahmed, are Somali, other employees are native Central Minnesotans or people of other ethnic backgrounds. National Home Health strives to match a client with a driver who, in some cases, is bilingual to accommodate the area’s growing minority communities. Drivers must pass a background check, defensive driver training and maintain a good record to be part of Siyad’s staff of more than two dozen people.

His business works with Blue Cross Blue Shield, Medica, Prime West Health and UCare.

Siyad, 39, remains a silent partner in Mogadishu Grocery, St. Cloud Meat & Grocery and Macca Meat & Grocery in Minneapolis; he uses some of his profits to help pay for affordable housing in Somalia. In 2010, he was appointed to a six-year term on the St. Cloud Economic Development Authority board by Mayor Dave Kleis. Siyad offered a look into his background and business interests as a young professional in a recent interview:

Where did you grow up, and how did that prepare you for what you’re doing now?

“I am originally from Somalia. I came here on July 7, 1998. I had a professional background. I graduated as a medical lab technician back home. I grew up in Jowhar (about an hour north of Mogadishu). After middle school, I moved away for high school and college, and that’s where I learned English, and that’s also when I played table tennis (on the Somali national team). ... When I got out of school in 1992-93, I worked a little in the hospitals in Mogadishu. Then in 1995, I moved to Yemen for three years until I came over here. ... I didn’t come to be a refugee here ... everybody comes to the United States for the opportunity, good education or to be an independent business leader. Always I think to make a difference.”

What were your first employment opportunities in America?

“I came directly to Minnesota because I knew some people here. They gave me an affidavit that I would be working and not rely on the government for assistance. When I got here, business was booming, and there was a lot of work. My first job was temporary, cleaning up after games at the Metrodome. Then my first real job was in housekeeping at the Hilton in Minneapolis. I didn’t have a car, so I had to find a job where I could walk the distance (to work). Later, I found an overnight job with Sky Chefs, making airplane food. After two months, I was team leader. I worked there seven or eight months. Then I got a temporary/seasonal job with the post office. I needed another job to be full-time, so I became a parking attendant. I was a cashier on Friday, Saturday and Monday nights. Then I got a job fixing phones, doing soldering work under a microscope. I worked full-time there and kept the parking job and became valet supervisor on the weekends. It was a lot of hard work.”

How did that prepare you to go into the grocery business?

“You have to get some money. You can’t buy the groceries right away. You have to save money. It took me a long time. I invested what I made in the grocery with a couple of partners. In 2000, we opened Macca Meat & Grocery in Minneapolis. I still own part of that. In 2004, I started the grocery here.”

What brought you to St. Cloud?

“There’s a large Somali community in St. Cloud, and there wasn’t much to support those people. My business partner, Mahad, grew up in the same city as me. We’ve known each other a long time. We came to a wedding of one of our friends whose marriage was here. That was the beginning because we saw people here that thought we should open a grocery here.”

How did you go from groceries to transportation?

“I decided after I had the groceries business going, always I was thinking it would be a good thing to be creating another business. There is a large community here that needs medical business — Somali and non-Somali. The need for a medical transportation company other than Care Cab was strong. ... Brian Myres (managing vice president of Capital One 360 in St. Cloud) was like my coacher. He said, ‘That’s a good idea.’ He gave me some contacts, and I did the work. Mahad and I started with one car. We applied to Stearns County to be a vendor, then we added work for Benton County and Sherburne County. Then we were able to meet with people at CentraCare, and we made that connection. They helped me a lot to get Blue Cross Blue Shield and UCare and all the providers. I did a good job with the providers, and it got us off to a good start. My partners were running the grocery stores, so I didn’t have to be there. This business was different because I needed to be in management.”

What is it about the transportation business that you enjoy?

“I have young employees and good people. I have a base in Minneapolis, Willmar and Walker, but my headquarters is here in St. Cloud. I drive myself sometimes, if I have to. ... We have 20 drivers and about six people working in the offices, but we’re always looking for more employees. We want all cultures. What we’re looking for is people who are good at communication. ... We can grow. There’s plenty of opportunity. Our goal someday is to have 100 or more cars. We’re looking for expansion.”

What advice would you give to someone trying to get their start in business?“I think everybody has opportunity out there. Anyone who thinks he can do a good thing will do it. I don’t think anyone can stop you if you have the commitment and energy and time. Time is most important. When you work for someone, you know what time you’re working. When you work your own business, you need to put in a lot of hours. Sometimes you can stay at the office from 5 o’clock (in the morning) to 10 o’clock at night. Sometimes you are at home and you’re dealing with business. When you’re a small businessman, you need a lot of energy. Sometimes I’m meeting with clients. Sometimes I’m driving. Sometimes I’m answering the phones. You do a lot.”

Why is St. Cloud a good location for your business?

“This business can appeal to everyone, no matter your background or who you are. And St. Cloud is my home now. You don’t forget where you got your best opportunity first. You see Marco. They were dealing with a lot of business in the Cities. The big companies they work with are not here. But their base office is in St. Cloud. Wherever your home is, that’s where your base needs to be. I know a lot of people in St. Cloud, and they are good people here. St. Cloud is growing, and people are engaged. In the next 20 years, it will be a lot bigger. You see businesses come here, like CVS (Pharmacy). A lot of others might come, because there are going to be opportunities.”

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